Ep 267 Meet Laura Sieveking, author of the children’s series ‘Amelia Chamelia’.

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In Episode 267 of So you want to be a writer: Allison and Valerie confess the mistakes they’ve made and what they’ve learnt from them. You’ll meet Laura Sieveking, author of the children’s series Amelia Chamelia who shares how she writes for one publisher while working for another. We also have 10 double passes to give away to If Beale Street Could Talk.

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Show Notes

Writer in Residence

Laura Sieveking

Ever since she learnt to hold a pen, Laura Sieveking has loved creating stories. She remembers hiding in her room as a six-year-old, writing a series of books about an unlikely friendship between a princess and a bear. 

As an adult, Laura has spent the vast majority of her career working in publishing as an editor. After several years, she decided to put down her red pen and open up her laptop to create books of her own.

Laura’s books revolve around all the things she loved as a child – friendships, sport and a little bit of magic. Her series include The Royal Academy of Sport for Girls and Amelia Chamelia

Laura lives in Sydney with her husband and two children.

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Laura Sieveking is the Australian author of two series of books for children: The Royal Academy of Sport For Girls, and her new series Amelia Chamelia. Laura has spent the vast majority of her career working in publishing as an editor and today works as a senior editor at Scholastic Australia, managing picture books and junior fiction. Her own books are published through Penguin. So, welcome to the program, Laura.

Laura

Hello. Good to be here.

Allison

All right, so let’s go back to the beginning, and maybe you can tell us a little bit about how your first book series came to be published.

Laura

I’ve always had an interest in writing. Even as a young child I was writing little series. I remember my mum bought me a hardcover notebook and I was writing a really interesting serial about a princess and a bear and their friendship. So that was even at a very young age.

So I was always really interested in writing and publishing. But it was into editing that I went first. I started in editing over 15 years ago, started in legal publishing. But always had that interest in writing for myself as well. It wasn’t until quite far into my career, actually, that I had the thought of becoming a published author in and of myself, in my own right.

So what I did at the time, I was working in educational publishing, as an editor for primary fiction and literacy books. And I thought about writing my own series. So I wrote The Royal Academy of Sport for Girls. And I submitted that to, at the time, it was Random House.

And like many people, I just submitted it to the open email address they had at the time, the slush pile, if you will. I didn’t have any sort of formal connection with anyone at Random House. I think a lot of people think I must have somehow got my book published through friends in the industry, but that’s not actually the case. I actually sent my manuscript to that email address and then got a call a little bit later from the publishers there saying they were interested in the series.

So that’s how The Royal Academy of Sport came to be.

Allison

All right, so tell us a little bit about that series… Sorry, excuse me, I’ve got a frog in my throat today. The Royal Academy of Sport for Girls – was that the first thing that you ever really wrote as an adult? Or had you been, all the time that you were working as an editor, were you tinkering away with different ideas and things? Or was it just like, you know what, today I’m going to be a published author?

Laura

I think that’s the first series that I committed to writing from beginning to end with the thought… I was thinking a bit more commercially, thinking I want to get this out. Whereas in the past, I have written lots of little things. I’ve still got things sitting on my hard drive that I’ve never quite finished. So I’ve always had ideas and been writing along the way.

But you’re right, this one was one that I thought, you know, I think this one could work really well commercially. So what I did was I wrote the first book. The first book is a gymnastics book. So the idea is that there’s this school, The Royal Academy of Sport for Girls, where these girls can go and they can be doing their studies alongside competing in whatever sport that they’re in.

So I chose gymnastics because I was a gymnast growing up and that was kind of really central to my identity as a young girl growing up. So that was quite easy for me to write because I had a background in that area. So when I wrote that first book, it was very much writing from experience for me. It’s got a lot of me as a child in it. A lot of experiences in there are things that I experienced in the gym. So it was that kind of writing from my own heart, I suppose.

At the time I didn’t know whether this series would be all gymnastics books. I think that’s what I thought it would be originally. But when I pitched it to the publishers I said that I was happy for it to be either a gymnastics series the whole way through or, if they preferred, I could do different books in different sports focusing on different girls. And that’s the track that they wanted to take the books down. Which I was completely happy with that.

So they’re kind of standalone books. They have stories with different characters in their own right but they do reference each other. But they really are standalone books.

Allison

But they’re all linked by this over-arching concept of the sports academy. So when you said, you wrote the first book in its entirety, but you actually pitched it as a series right from the beginning. So when you actually submitted it, you pitched it as a series right from the start? Okay. And do you think because of your background in… I mean, I know you were working in educational publishing at the time. Do you think it was your background in that that made you think that this was a commercial way to go about doing that?

Laura

Yeah, I think so. I’d attended a lot of writers’ festivals and things like that as well. And just that idea of knowing where there’s a gap in the market is really important.

So I remember at the time, my daughter at the time was about six, so she’s a bit under the age group that it’s for. So at the time she was about that age so I was kind of in that world of children’s fiction, just looking at things for her. And I’d seen the success of Dance Academy which was made into an ABC TV series. And then I think a movie, as well, actually.

And then I was remembering back into my day when we had Saddle Club and those kind of horsey books. And so I just thought, oh you know what? There’s not a lot in the market at the moment that’s more broadly sports, specifically gymnastics, but also more broadly other sports. Since I published those books, there have been a few more netball books and cricket books. But at that time, there wasn’t a huge amount of sports outside of dance and horse riding.

So that’s where I kind of thought, okay, I know this. I know this stuff and I like writing it. But I also think that there’s a gap here. And I was able to put that in my pitch, which I think really helped.

Allison

And so they were first published in 2017? Is that correct?

Laura

Yeah, I think so.

Allison

So what age group would you say that these books were pitched to?

Laura

I think I was writing them for… They’re probably around nine. Nine to ten, was kind of the age group I was thinking of. But they’re set in high school. So the girls in the book are in year seven.

So I’ve actually had really lovely feedback from some parents of reluctant readers who are kind of around the 12 year old age mark who are really enjoying them. But having said that, they’re not long books. And they’re not difficult. And the content is not inappropriate. There’s nothing really edgy in them either. So I’ve had parents of kids as young as seven saying that they’re kids are reading them and enjoying them as well. So really it’s sat across anywhere from seven to twelve has been enjoying them.

Allison

And how did you decide… Did you decide on that age group before you started writing? Did you think to yourself, I’m going to pitch this at nine year olds? Or was it just like, well, they’re going to be in year seven and then you work back from there?

Laura

A little bit. Because I wanted it to be a high school, but I didn’t want the girls to be too old because I didn’t want to write YA. So I knew the girls in the book would be about twelve, eleven-twelve, year seven, first year high school. And then just from my experience in publishing, even in educational publishing when we do literacy fiction, we always have the main characters slightly older than the reading age. Because children do like to read aspirationally and read up, read about people who are just in that age group slightly above them.

So I thought, well, if the girls are eleven-twelve, then really I think the nine and ten year olds are going to be the ones who really enjoy it.

Allison

Okay. So let’s talk about your new series, which is called Amelia Chamelia. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that? It’s a younger series than the Royal Academy. So how did that series come about?

Laura

This one came about… I’ve had discussions with my kids. I have a six year old and a ten year old. And we always discuss, oh, if you had a super power what would you want to have? And kids always talk about that they’d love to fly. But the other one that always comes up is they’d love to be invisible. So they love that idea of being a fly on the wall or being able to listen into things that they’re not supposed to. So that kind of idea.

So the idea for me came out that what if she wasn’t invisible in the sense that she’s not there, she’s able to camouflage into her environment. So when she’s having strong emotions, when she’s either frightened or very angry or having those really strong feelings, she camouflages into her environment and then becomes invisible.

So early on in the books, she has no control basically over it, in the early stages. And as the books progress she starts to work out what it is that’s triggering her powers and she’s battling to learn how to control them.

But that’s the idea behind the whole series is she can become invisible. And with that power she solves a mystery in one of them, in another one she uses it to help her friend, and rescue her friend in another one. So she’s using those powers for good, really.

Allison

Okay. And so how did you decide Amelia was… Because she looks to me like she’s written for the six to eight market. Would that be about right?

Laura

Yes.

Allison

So how did you decide she was younger? And how did that… Is that something that you work out in the concept stage, when you’re starting to put the whole idea together?

Laura

Yeah. So I came up with he idea first and that was pitched to my publisher. And it was actually through discussions with my publisher where we decided what age group it would be best for. So I was kind of relying on their expertise in that.

I did pitch it, do we want it to be a slightly older, more of a mystery series? Sort of Friday Barnes age group where she’s using her power for that sort of thing.

But they thought just a magical element in a real world context is something that that younger market really loves. They love seeing every day things that they can relate to, their worlds. So Amelia, some of it’s set in her home, some of it’s in school. So stuff that they can really relate to but just with this little twist of surrealism or magic is something that that age group really enjoys.

So it was really with the help of the publisher that I homed in on which age group we thought it would be best for.

Allison

Okay. And again, this one is a four book series as well. There’s two out at the moment, I think, and two on the way.

Laura

Yes.

Allison

So with the length of series stuff, how is that decided at the beginning stages? Do you go in and say, I see this as four books? Or does the publisher come back to you and say, look, let’s do four and see what happens?

Laura

Yeah, more the latter probably. So I wanted it as a series. I didn’t ever imagine that it would be a standalone book. So we had pitched it as a series. And quite often publishers will sign up… Sometimes they’ll sign up two or three, and sometimes they’ll do four or five.

And sometimes it’s a matter of seeing how the sales go and then whether the series progresses after that. But sometimes it’s also up to the author and whether that you think that that series has kind of rounded out and you feel creatively that it’s come to a natural close. So it’s a mix of sales and how the author feels about where the series is at creatively.

Allison

Okay, so what do you think is the key to writing a good junior fiction series? As an editor, you’re obviously seeing a lot of this stuff. Where do you think most authors go wrong when they’re pitching into these sorts of age groups?

Laura

I think you just have to really be familiar with the age group and the market and what’s out there. And if you’ve got kids that’s helpful. Or if you know kids you can talk to and understand what level those children are at, that’s helpful.

But it’s also a matter of going out there and looking at the books that are pitched at that market. And having a look at what kind of vocabulary is used. What’s the general world length, page extent of these types of books? That’s helpful in the beginning.

I think as well, the story needs to be simple enough that you can have the climax and the drama in there and it can round out nicely. But it has to be achieved in a specific word count. So that really is the challenge of junior fiction, to be honest. If you’re writing older fiction – older fiction can range from 20,000 words up to 100,000 words, really. It doesn’t really matter. You write the story until it’s done.

But for this junior fiction market, it’s a lot stricter in its word count and page count. So you need to make sure that the story you’ve got can organically unfold but in a logical way for that page count.

Allison

So what is the word count? So on your Amelia Chamelia six to eight year old, what is the word count on a book in that series?

Laura

So that one’s 7,000 words approximately. Seven to eight. And that would be what I would call a confident independent reader. So they’re probably on par with Belinda Murrell’s Lulu Bell, that sort of age group. So they’re not down at… If you look at other early fiction, Billie B Brown, or Ella & Olivia – I’m the editor on Ella & Olivia actually.

Allison

There you go!

Laura

So those books are early fiction. Very, very early fiction. So children as young as five are reading them. They’re a lot smaller, so they’re probably about 2,000 words.

Normally for writers, I don’t like to be too prescriptive in, oh, this is your wordcount. But I think in junior fiction it’s important just because if you hand me a 30,000 word manuscript and tell me it’s for a six year old, well… Sure there may be a couple of six year olds who could handle that, but that’s not realistic for the market. So you do have to be a bit careful.

Allison

And your Royal Academy of Sport which is slightly older, what approximate word count are we looking at that there?

Laura

That one’s 20,000 words. Which is actually, that’s quite short for a middle older primary age fiction. I’m just thinking of Alice Miranda and those types of books would be up around the 50 or 60, maybe. Don’t quote me on that. But they’re probably somewhere around there.

So these are relatively short. They’re supposed to be enjoyable quick reads. They’re not overly meaty books. But that’s where they’re at.

Allison

So you said that keeping within the page expectations of your readership is one of the challenges. Getting a satisfying story into some of those shorter word counts, as you say, are among the more difficult things about writing junior fiction. Are there any other key points that you would say for people to keep in mind if they’re looking at this is the area that they’re drawn to?

Laura

Thematically, like I was saying, children in this age group like to see their world reflected in their books. So you will see a lot of these junior fiction series are set mostly in reality. I mean, some aren’t. Some are much more into fantasy. But a lot of them really are reflecting back the kid’s own reality. And then maybe it will have these other elements of fantasy or magic or whatever it is.

But kids at that age, they want to be able to identify with what they’re reading. So as long as you have that human experience in there, characters going through what they’re going through. And as I said, that can be in more of a fictional or non-fictional context.

For example, in Amelia Chamelia, she’s very much trying to deal with her emotions. That’s the background story going on in there. And she’s a funny character. Because I’m loving all the strong girls we’re seeing in fiction at the moment. It’s absolutely brilliant seeing all these strong female characters. But I wanted to have a character that is strong but introverted, just to give that message that, you know what? You can be a really strong girl even if you’re an introvert. Strength is not necessarily extrovert.

So Amelia is naturally an introverted little girl who has different scenarios come up that she has to deal with. In the third book, which comes out in April, she’s asked to be the narrator in the school play. And that for her is just a horrific idea. So how she deals with those things. Having these kind of themes that kids can identify with. In Amelia’s case it’s overcoming some of the pitfalls, some of the aspects of an introvert that they have to deal with. That’s kind of what I wanted to explore with her character.

Allison

So you obviously enjoy writing series fiction. What is it about it that draws you to it?

Laura

As I said, I have got other bits of writing and manuscripts sitting on my hard drive that I haven’t really progressed. And not all of them are series. But I do love, with a series, I do love the sense of progression that you can have. It’s more of a slow burn. You can have it over the whole series rather than in an intense one book.

Particularly with junior fiction, as well, I think. Really developing a character does sometimes have to happen across quite a few books. Just because, as I said, the word count and the page count is low.

And kids at that age, they need to be able to have the achievement of starting and finishing something in a relatively short amount of time. Because they are only just brand new readers. My son’s only six and he’s just opening up the world of independent reading and he needs the reward of finishing a book.

So that’s one thing that I think works really well with junior fiction and that drew me to doing a series, was that developing a character over several books. So that children still have the achievement of finishing a book, but then we can still draw out the character over a long period of time.

Allison

So when you start, let’s just look at Amelia Chamelia, as she’s looking so dazzling there for us, have you basically, when you’re pitching that concept, so you’ve got the idea maybe for the first book, have you then pitched out her character growth over four books? Have you scoped that out for yourself and then worked out the arc for each story within that? Or has that developed as you’ve written each of those books? Are you planning all that in advance?

Laura

Yeah, no. With Amelia, her character development has happened a bit more organically. It’s kind of happened over the series of the books. And with my editor as well. She’s saying, oh, maybe we could do this and that, just to give her a bit more depth in the next book and the next book. Getting to know her more and more.

In terms of those intricacies of her character, that’s definitely been something that’s happened on the go. Whereas, when I was pitching it, I did have the basic storylines for three books, I think, at the time. The fourth book came to me a lot later. But the first three books I had those ideas pretty set. And the first manuscript I’d had, I think it was pretty much written, actually, when I pitched it.

Allison

Okay. So because you’ve taken, as we’ve discussed, the two approaches with your two different series, like with Royal Academy you write each book from a different character’s viewpoint, so they’re related but different. With Amelia, you’ve got the same main character for each story. As you’ve now completed those two stories, or to the point where we’ve got four books in each, but what do you find as a writer are the pros and cons of each of those approaches?

Laura

Yeah. I mean, in some ways it’s easier for me to write more from the perspective of the character. You kind of get into their head and do it that way. How I felt with the Academy series, I felt like I got in the head of each character, and this was very much from their point of view. Whereas Amelia Chamelia, it’s third person narrative. And it’s definitely about her and we are in her mind quite a lot. But there is that kind of, I don’t know, a bit more of a step back. And I’m developing her kind of as a third person, not in and of herself.

I mean, it’s just a different gear, really. It’s not one… I didn’t find one easier than the other, I don’t think. I kind of just switch gear and then you’re in this new way of writing. And with a series, you’re very quick to get into that flow in terms of writing, whether you’re writing from first person or third person, that sort of thing.

So yeah, I’ve enjoyed both. They’ve been different, but I’ve enjoyed writing them both.

Allison

All right. So let’s have a little chat about this idea of being senior editor for one publishing house and writing for another publishing house. Is there ever a conflict in that? How do you manage that, basically?

Laura

Yeah, it’s interesting. A lot of people do get a bit of a shock. They presume I write for Scholastic. So when I say, oh no, these are actually Penguin books, they kind of look at me with this look of shock. Because I know in a lot of industries, you could never be working for two opposing companies.

But the thing to know about publishing is, firstly, it’s a very small industry. So I know a lot of people int he various publishing houses and we’ve all worked for each other. So it is a very small world. One of my other colleagues at Scholastic publishes with Harper Collins. So it’s not something that’s never done.

But I think for me I, generally speaking, at Scholastic I have my editor hat on and that’s what I do. I don’t pitch manuscripts to them. That’s my editor world. And then I’ve got my writing world which has been Penguin.

It’s also been very helpful because I am actually a signed author with Curtis Brown Australia. So I’ve got an agent there. So I think that as well gives me that little bit of a distance. If ever I did need to deal with Scholastic in that way, she would be dealing with the writing side. But having said that, I tend to sort of separate the two just so it’s nice and clean.

Allison

Nice and neat. Right. So the next question we must ask, of course, is how you manage to fit all of these things and a family into a 24 hour day? Where are you making the time to write your books?

Laura

So the Academy series I wrote… I wrote at least the first book a couple of years before they were published. And at that time I was freelancing from home and I was with my children at home. I think my youngest was still at home and my older one might have been just in kindergarten, or maybe just before.

So at that time when I was first concentrating on that book, I was freelancing, which gave me a bit more time to juggle all of that.

It’s been a little bit more of a challenge with Amelia Chamelia, because I am back fulltime working now. Having said that, junior fiction is lovely in the sense that the word count is not quite as high. I mean, the creative process takes a long time, but the actual writing, you know, it’s not the same as writing a 100,000 word huge book. So I have been able to juggle.

But it does mean, I mean, if you want to do it, you have to commit writing on the weekend or sometimes writing at night or taking a whole weekend and saying, please husband, have the kids the whole weekend and just deal with them so I can just…

Allison

Do something with these people, please!

Laura

That’s right. So you have to be aware that most authors, particularly when they’re first starting out, will have other fulltime jobs. It takes a long time to be an author in your own right and having that as your income and having that as your fulltime work.

So most authors I know at least started out with doing this on the side. So you have to just be open to making that time and committing to it. And yes, sometimes it’s difficult. And sometimes you don’t want to do it, to be honest. But you’ve just got to carve out that time and make it a priority.

Allison

All right. So how do you promote your work when you’re also working as an editor? Are you doing school visits? Have you got an online presence? What kind of stuff are you doing to actually get the word out about your books?

Laura

Yeah, it’s really hard if you’re working fulltime. Really, really hard. Because the publisher, they’re excellent and they try to give me as many opportunities as possible, but there’s only so much I can do when I’m working fulltime.

So when the Academy series first came out, I was still doing some freelance work, so I did have a bit more flexibility and I did do school visits for that series. But with Amelia it’s a little tricker. So I do have a book launch happening on the 9th of Feb in Mosman at Pages & Pages. That’s on a weekend. That’s a Saturday. So I can manage that.

And times like Book Week, I can use my annual leave if I need to to do those school visits. But yeah, it’s really tricky. It’s really tricky. I wish I could just sign up for a three week tour to go around with some of the other authors. But that’s just not a reality for me at this point.

Allison

So what do you do instead? Are you doing anything? Are you trying to get the word out in different ways?

Laura

Yeah. So these bookshop appearances on the weekends, so book signings and those sort of appearances. And then I’ve got an author Facebook page where I try to share as much as I can on there. Penguin are really good. Penguin Kids put some stuff up on Instagram with some sample chapters, recently. That was helpful.

But it’s kind of tricky. You just do what you can, I suppose.

Allison

Do what you can. It’s all anyone can do, right?

Laura

It’s not easy. Yeah. Exactly.

Allison

All right. So we are going to finish up today with our infamous last question which of course is your top three tips for writers.

Laura

I mean, the first one is probably super obvious. You need to write! It’s about, as I said, carving out that time and just committing to your craft. So sometimes that will mean writing when you’re not feeling particularly inspired. But just write when you can.

And things like writers’ festivals and writing classes, they are really helpful. So if you’ve got the opportunity to go to those kinds of things, do. Learn from the experts, learn from your peers. So that’s really good.

Number two, I think just knowing what is out there is really important. So yes, you do want to write about what you’re passionate about. But if you want to be published, you do need to know the market. So go to your local bookshops, see what’s out there, know what your book is like, and then know what your book is not like. What’s not out there? What is the niche? So that’s really important.

Read widely from other authors who have been successful. Not so you can copy what they’ve done, because it’s obviously been done. But just knowing what’s out there already and where your manuscript fits is really important.

And then I think this is more about pitching than it is about actually writing, but knowing the publishers as well. So know what each publisher likes to publish and then you can pitch appropriately. So if you’re trying to pitch a picture book who doesn’t really focus on picture books, then you’ve wasted a bit of time there. Theirs and yours. So I think as a writer, knowing not just the market but who is publishing what is really important.

Like Scholastic, they’re really passionate about the school age market because of their book clubs. So that’s a really good publisher for those sorts of books. If you’re doing an early ABC, 123 type book, maybe that’s not the publisher for you to pitch to. So know what you’ve got and what everybody’s publishing. That’s what I say.

Allison

Fantastic. All right, well, thank you so much for your time today. Best of luck with Amelia Chamelia and all of those other things that you’re doing.

Laura

Thank you.

Allison

And maybe some of our listeners will be pitching to you. So you know, brace yourself.

Laura

That’s all right. I’m always looking for the next big thing. So that’s always wonderful.

Allison

Thank you.

Laura

Okay, thank you very much.


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