Ep 268 Crime writing for the young adult market and meet children’s author R.A. Spratt.

In Episode 268 of So you want to be a writer: Allison and Valerie talk about crime writing for the young adult market, interview children’s author R.A. Spratt and discuss what Allison really does with her feather boa! We also have 5 copies of Baby – a sunburnt psychological thriller of obsession and escape by Annaleese Jochems to give away.

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Show Notes

Listener Shoutout

Harris Telemarker from Australia

I’ve been listening to the podcast for about a year now, and it’s been such a balm to my literary soul. Whilst on submission, I looked forward to your show each week, to keep me distracted while the rejections rolled in lol. I particularly love the authors in residence, as it’s so encouraging to hear the unique journey that each individual travels on the path to publication. Great works folks.

Links Mentioned

Industry Insider: Writing crime thrillers for adults and teens

Magic and Mayhem: The free ebook and podcast series

Writer in Residence

R.A. Spratt

R.A. Spratt is a best-selling author and television writer. She is known for the Nanny Piggins and Friday Barnes series of books.

R.A. Spratt has written for dozens of different television shows. In recent years she has specialized mainly in children’s animation, but she has also had extensive experience writing jokes, sketch comedy and political satire.

R.A. Spratt’s first book, The Adventures of Nanny Piggins was published in Australia in March, 2009 and the USA in August, 2010. Booklist (the American Library Association’s publication) judged it to be the ‘Top of the List’, best youth fiction for 2010.

She is also the author of The Peski Kids series.

Follow R.A. Spratt on Twitter

Follow Penguin Teachers 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

WIN ‘Baby’ by Annaleese Jochems

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

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Rachel Spratt, also known as R A Spratt, is a bestselling Australian author and television writer. She is known for the Nanny Piggins and Friday Barnes series of books, which are both available in many territories worldwide. And there are currently two books out in her new middle grade series The Peski Kids. She also continues to write for television, specialising most recently in children’s animation, so she is a very busy woman. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today, R A Spratt.

Rachel

Oh hello. Well, it’s fabulous and wonderful to be here. And thank you for taking the time to think that you could talk to me and that it will be worth your time and not a huge waste of your time.

Allison

I’m sure it’s going to be highly entertaining. All right, now, we’re going to go all the way back to the beginning. How did your first series Nanny Piggins, beloved around the world, come to be published?

Rachel

Come to be published? Um.

Allison

We’re back in the annals of time here.

Rachel

Yeah. Because people usually say, ‘how did you come up with the idea?’ They don’t ask ‘how did it come to be published?’ So you threw me a little bit with your genius question.

Allison

I know.

Rachel

It’s actually, I have, when people say, oh how do you get a book published? I always say, I have the worst story and you don’t want to hear it. Because it’s the opposite of everybody else’s story.

I wrote a book, and I wrote a book between getting engaged and getting married. So I got engaged in the August of 2006 and I get married in the December of 2006. Which is quite a short engagement. And during that time, I wrote The Adventures of Nanny Piggins. For a variety of reasons to do with my husband’s schedule and him not coming home… Anyway, I won’t go into all of that.

So anyway, in that four months, I planned a wedding and I wrote a book. But then I focused mostly on the wedding and getting married bit, because I had to nail that down. And so I got married in England, so I went off to England. And before I went I said to my agent, ‘I’ve written this book, could you show it to some people?’

And then I went off to England and I had a six week honeymoon. And I was travelling and I got back and I got pregnant like that. So I had on my mind. And about four months later I said to my agent, ‘so did anything happen with that book?’ And she’s like, ‘yeah, I sent it to five people and two of them are interested.’ I’m like, that’s cool.

And then I’m pregnant, so I’m going off to doctors’ appointments. And it’s a few months later I’m like, ‘so how’s that all going?’ She’s like, ‘Penguin – ‘ (it was Random House back then) ‘ – very interested.’ And they had meetings with me and they’re talking and showed it to focus groups. But still, I’m more concerned about being married and pregnant and everything.

And then one day I give birth to the baby and I’m in the maternity ward of Bowral hospital. And she’s a day old and I’m in the hospital and my agent rings. She says, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that you’ve got a book contract.’ I’m like, oh yeah, that’s good news. She said, ‘the bad news is it’s a two-book deal and you’ve got three months to write the next one.’ So I’ve got literally a one day old baby in my arm and a contract saying I have to write a 50,000 word book in the next three months.

So that’s how I got my publishing deal. I did not try hard. There’s not like me sending it out to hundreds of people. It’s like, I gave it to my agent, she handled it, and it just all sort of miraculously happened.

 

Allison

Okay. Interesting. So going back slightly from the baby, etc, so you got engaged, you’re getting married in five minutes. Why did you write Nanny Piggins right then?

Rachel

Oh you want me to go back to that bit?

Allison

I do. I want you to tell me that. I need to know how long that idea was percolating before you whipped it out between your engagement and your marriage.

Rachel

I knew you weren’t really interested in the actual how did your book come to be published!

Allison

No! I’m fascinated by that. But I’m also interested, for me, as someone who has written books to short deadlines, the fact that you’re engaged, you’ve got the pressure of a wedding and you think now’s a really awesome time to write this book. It would be good to know what brought that on, really.

Rachel

Well, I’ve always had an excellent work ethic. No, seriously, I have. I’ve got a whiteboard in my office and it’s got a list of projects that I want to develop that I wrote about 15 years ago. I always literally, like on my computer right now, I have a list of five projects that I want to develop. I always have a list of projects I want to develop.

So whenever I find myself with a couple of weeks where my schedule is slower, I will spend that time on developing one of those projects. It doesn’t come up very often anymore. Usually, when I did a lot more work in TV, it would come up at Christmas time. There would be three or four weeks where I wasn’t so busy and I would have a go at writing a pilot script or writing a film script. And so for me that was something I did once or twice a year.

Because in television, it’s very seasonal work. It’s like fruit picking where you’ll be really busy for four months and then you’ll have a couple weeks where it goes really quiet.

So I had this routine of when I had some downtime, if it was just a couple of weeks, I was like, well, I’ll try to develop a project.

So I’d had this idea, it was literally on my list, I had this list, it was like the fourth item on my list was… I think it was called Mary Piggins back then, and then I changed it to Nanny Piggins later. And I’d had this idea, because I’d been working on a preschool show, and I’d been very frustrated by the rules on a preschool show, and I was very frustrated because I didn’t think they were focusing enough on creating an entertaining narrative for the children. I thought they were way too focused on trying to crowbar in educational content to suck up to the broadcasters and things like that. And they weren’t just like, let’s make something cool for kids.

So I had this idea and I pitched it originally as a television show, the idea of Nanny Piggins with her circus connections, so it would be like a sitcom where there’s Nanny Piggins and she’s got human children and her circus friends come by and the kids are going to school. And it would be all the problems would evolve from that. And it would have the one set location. Classic sitcom.

So I pitched this to the television producer, and they said, that’s a fantastic idea. This character is great. Of course, we’d have to water it down and change it and make her nicer to everyone because there’s no way you’d get this past all the broadcasters and be able to get a coalition of international producers to throw money.

And I just thought, well, stuff that. The whole reason I want to do it is to not compromise. So then I thought if I write it as a book, everyone will fall in love with it. And then when it becomes a television show they won’t be able to change it.

Allison

That was literally my next question was given your background in television writing, why did you write Nanny Piggins as a book? And you’ve just answered it for me! And so we can just move straight on to question three. Which is this one – the TV experience that you have, how do you think it informs the way in which you actually write your books? I mean, you’ve obviously got that list of projects. But what is it about you TV experience that really brings out an R A Spratt book?

Rachel

Well, I write books as though they’re television shows. Because I had no idea how to write a book. When I was at school, I was terrible at English.

So I’m very conscious, when I started doing it I was very conscious of my limitations and self-conscious of how bad I was at my command of English and grammar and things like that. Obviously, I have vocabulary and I’m expressive and I can tell stories. But I never learned grammar properly. And I know my mind just has mental blocks with English the way other people don’t.

But that said, my mind can do things with comedy and dialogue that other people can’t. So my brain basically works differently in terms of my command of the English language. But I knew I knew how to write television. So if you look at my books, to me it’s startlingly obvious and I’m amazed more people don’t mention it, my books are written like sitcoms. Nanny Piggins is, literally every chapter is a separate story.

And I don’t know how familiar you are with television writing, but in a sitcom the idea is you have a set location, you have four to eight main characters, and the idea is the characters can never evolve as people. They’ll have a story arc, but at the end of the story, they return exactly to where they were at the beginning of the story.

So Nanny Piggins is like that. The kids never get older, she never learns a lesson, she never evolves as a person. Each chapter is a separate story. And then like a television series, like Friends or something, you’ll have a loose story that runs through each book. So that’s how I wrote Nanny Piggins.

And I learned, obviously you write nine books, you learn something. So when I came to Friday Barnes, I did bring some more novel type strategies, more classic book type strategies into those books. But still I was writing in a very similar way to you would write a television show. Trying to make each, like… I still think in terms of scenes and episodes when I’m writing a book, even though it’s chapters and…

Allison

Interesting. Because obviously when you’re writing a series like Friday Barnes, which is very much you’ve got your main central character, she’s solving the mysteries, you’ve got to have your classic novel character development through that as you go through. So is that something that you’ve had to work on as you’ve gone through those series?

Rachel

No, I still think of it as a sitcom. In my mind, if you’ve got the location, it’s a sitcom. Set location. You’ve got the main characters. So there’s Friday, Melanie, Ian, Binky, the headmaster, Uncle Benny. They’re probably the six main characters. And then everybody else are like satellite characters. So you use them, but you use them sparingly.

And then you have, as a school, you’ve got all these dynamics where outside people can come in, because you get extra students or new teachers. So I still think of that as a sitcom.

And I hear what you’re saying about the development of the character. And I suppose she does evolve. But she doesn’t evolve much. But they really make me crazy. Like they do, the publishers have to beat me over the head to get me to include that. They love it. They just pee their pants over the most, what I consider the most mundane crow-barred in… You know, they like me to have a moment where Friday feels really bad because she doesn’t fit in with the other kids. So there’s always like a moment in the book where it’s like, she feels really bad. And then at the end, she feels good because she saved the school. And you think, that’s sort of her arc. But yeah.

Allison

Okay. So do you work closely with your editors when it comes to… Once you’ve drafted it, you’ve drafted a first draft or second draft or whatever it is that you send to your editor, your publisher. Are you working closely with them on the development of the series? Because that’s quite a TV approach, isn’t it? It’s kind of a group collaborative approach?

Rachel

Oh god, no. I don’t believe in that!

Allison

Okay. Cool.

Rachel

No. I’m very different to other authors in that… It’s almost, I work different to TV because of what my… I try to get my draft as ready to go as possible so they have as little to do as possible because I don’t want them changing anything because I don’t have any faith in their judgement. They’re lovely, they’re wonderful people. They can change my grammar as much as they like. But I’m an egomaniac when it comes to story and character and dialogue. Particularly comedy! And I think I’m the best judge of what goes in my book.

So I don’t… I very rarely ask for input. They ask for things like, can you have a pathos moment. And I’ll put that in. But we don’t, I don’t do much the way of structural editing. The first book of a series I would. But Nanny Piggins didn’t get many structural… I don’t think Nanny Piggins was ever structurally edited. It’s more… They try and get me to take inappropriate things out sometimes. We have arguments about things like that.

Allison

So once they’re set up, they’re basically… You work at them on your own essentially until they’re pretty much ready to go?

Rachel

Yeah. And they help me a lot with stuff like grammar. And also, I mean, I do have things that I do that I shouldn’t. Like I like to write dialogue. So the things that I get reminded to do when I send in a script are usually: put in more bits in between the dialogue. And I very begrudgingly do that. And then the other thing I often get is: have more of a pathos moment. But then I do that myself now. I’ve sort of learned.

And then they’ll give me, like if I’ve done something that’s confusing, they’ll say, okay, this is confusing. You haven’t put enough information to explain that. So they’re the main structure notes that I would get.

And I do get more structural notes now that I’m writing more narrative, more complicated books. They do, they’re an enormous help. But I just technically and structurally, I’m pretty on top of things. And I don’t overwrite either. A lot of writers overwrite and then their editors help them cut it down.

Allison

Take things out, yeah.

Rachel

Whereas I tend to underwrite, and then they have to ask me to put in more stuff. So if I’ve got a 40,000 word… It’ll be like, if there’s anything missing, tell me, and I’ll add it in.

Allison

Okay. So how many drafts are you doing on a script? Let’s call it a script, because you’re calling it a script, but it’s actually… On a manuscript, how many drafts would you do before you think it’s ready to go?

Rachel

Well, I do a rough draft. And then I do all the way from beginning to the end. I never edit as I go. And then… I don’t know. Over like a three week period, I will just go over it and over it, from beginning to end, beginning to end, beginning to end. And I don’t know how many times I would do that.

And then I’ll read it aloud. And I’ll try and get my husband to read it. Although he hasn’t read The Peski Kids books. Because he’s a writer too. But he read all the Nanny Piggins and the Friday Barnes and he would give me a set of notes. He’s a comedy writer too, so I have a lot of faith in his judgement in terms of comedy.

And then I hand it in. And I’m always very self-conscious when I hand it in. And then they give me the feedback, what they want me to add in, what haven’t I put in. And what doesn’t make sense. And then we’ll go from there.

Allison

Do you know it’s funny right from the start? Do you know it’s funny when you’re writing it? Are you enough in tune, obviously you’re an experienced comedy writer, but do you know it’s funny on the page? Or is not until you read it out loud that you can hear where it’s working or not working?

Rachel

Definitely reading aloud will make you more aware. Particularly, I should have said this, The Peski Kids, because my kids are older, I’ve actually started, I read it aloud to myself, but I also read it aloud to them. Which I never used to do with Nanny Piggins and Friday Barnes because they were younger and I just didn’t have the time.

Whereas now I say to the publisher, I say to them, I’m going to read this to my kids. It’s going to take a week to do it, because your kids aren’t going to sit still while you read a whole book to them. So it’ll take me a week to do it night by night. It’s worth you waiting a week to get the book, because I will get such valuable information from reading it to a child about where it lags and where it’s funny.

I mean, I never have any doubts about my ability to be funny because to me that’s just the way I write, so I don’t think about it that way. The most valuable information I get from reading it to my eight year old is where it lags and where it gets confusing. So that’s the stuff I get from her.

But it is handy to know where she will laugh out loud. But Friday Barnes, I never intended Friday Barnes to be a comedy book. But it’s just I’m a comedy writer, it just comes out that way. That’s just the way I write.

Allison

It’s interesting because Friday Barnes is obviously mystery. Peski Kids is mystery territory. So you’re looking at strong plots here. But the overwhelming voice of them is obviously funny, yeah?

Rachel

Yeah. And I didn’t really intend it. It’s very hard to write a… Like, you know when someone dies and you write a little note in a card? It’s very hard because you’re a comedy writer and everything comes across either you’re joking or you’re sarcastic.

Allison

It’s a cross to bear, isn’t it?

Rachel

It is. So…

Allison

All right, well let’s just switch to the mystery aspect for a minute.

Rachel

It wasn’t really…

Allison

Yeah, sorry, our line’s gone a little bit weird here. So we’ll just keep going for a minute. I’m hoping it will come back for us. But what do you think is the key to writing a great mystery story for this age group?

Rachel

Well, for a start, I would never try and write a great mystery story. I would desperately scrabble to write a mediocre one and then just pray that it was better than I thought it was.

Often you write backwards. I mean, when I wrote Friday Barnes, you have a mystery for the whole book, but then you have little mysteries as well. Little puzzles for the readers. And that often is reverse engineered. You come up with an idea, often a science based idea, and then you get all the red herrings and you muddle it up backwards.

But then the idea for the whole book, again, often the first thing I think up would be the action sequence at the end. My books always, again, this is television training, is you want a really big action set piece right at the end as you arc from the second act into the third act. And so often that’s the first thing.

Because I think visually, because I’m an animation writer, so Friday Barnes 3, I wanted Ian and Friday on horseback chasing after someone on horseback, where she’s clinging to him. And then so I just had that visual image and that was the starting point of the book. And then I had to reverse engineer it so think, who are they chasing on horseback? And so I thought, I’d had this idea about Prince Charles had gone to Geelong Grammar, so I thought what if there’s someone in a royal family at their school? And then I thought, well how can that be a mystery? And you think, what if it’s someone pretending to be in the royal family, they’re not really in the royal family. And then you think, what if they steal something because they’re a con artist? And then you just sort of reverse engineer it.

So I know from the first page that I’m writing it that this is going to be the story, so then I start lacing through all these hints. And that’s how it works.

Allison

Okay. So you’re working out the plot before you start. Then you start writing. And you’re working through those red herrings as you go?

Rachel

Yeah. And once you know what the conclusion is, it’s actually almost mundane. Because you think, how can the readers not realise that this is what’s going to happen? Because of course they don’t know, so to them it does unravel piece by piece. So it is weird. You’ve got to have faith in the method.

Allison

All right, so tell us about your new books. Tell us about The Peski Kids. Where did… I’m going to ask you the great writerly question of all time – where did they come from? Where did the idea for those guys come from?

Rachel

With all my books, people say, what’s the idea? And it’s not one, it’s a compilation of hundreds of ideas. So because I always start off with a sitcom structure, I thought…

The first thing I thought of was I wanted a book about brothers and sisters who fight. Because I’d worked on this television show called the Skinner Boys, which is about three brothers and their cousin. And it was really fun writing the dialogue, because brothers and sisters talk to each other totally different to the way normal humans talk to each other. And I thought… Because they’re just, they just niggle at each other. And they have a go at each other constantly. So I thought, that’s a lot of fun. Because when you write a story, you want conflict. And brothers and sisters are in a constant state of conflict.

So I thought, I want that. And then I started thinking about the Famous Five and I thought I want Enid Blyton’s huge sales and royalties.

Allison

Don’t we all, darl?

Rachel

So I thought, that’s a really good format. And one of my kids said to me, have a dog. Because kids love dogs. And I’m like, really? But yeah, they were totally right, because Pumpkin is… Like when I ask kids which is their favourite character, they often say the dog, Pumpkin.

So I thought, well, I’ll use the Famous Five. I’ll have four kids, three are brothers and sisters, their next door neighbour, and the dog. And they’re the Peski kids.

So that was the set up in terms of characters. And then I needed to give them a location. Like a sitcom, that’s a classic thing, what’s the situation? And so I thought, like, I live in a country town, Bowral, which is very eccentric and has very strange and random festivals every weekend. Like Potato Olympics and the Carpathalon* and the busking competition.

So I thought, this is perfect. And there’s so many eccentric characters in town, I thought this is perfect. So I’ll get these kids that fight all the time, a dog that bites people, and I’ll put them in this town.

So then I had to think, well, why do they come to this town? And I wanted a really, like, I wanted to start with a big action set piece.

And I had this idea when I first started writing books and I first went to Random House, the offices, and there’s all these lovely middle aged ladies. And I did the maths on how much money my book was going to make and how much money books made and I realised publishing doesn’t make any sense as a business. There’s so little money in it. And I was looking around thinking, and I’d been watching all of Alias, and I thought what if publishing is just a front for an international espionage network? Like in Get Smart, how they all say they work in the greeting card industry.

And so I started to think about that, how all these really nice middle aged ladies would be perfect spies. Because if someone waltzed in dressed like James Bond, super good looking, and in a tuxedo, you’d think, oh that guy is up to something. Whereas if a lovely publishing executive wafted in and said, can I get you a cup of coffee or something? You would never expect her to then choke you out and steal all your secrets.

Allison

No, you would not.

Rachel

So I had that idea in my head. So I thought well what if these kids had a mum who they thought was really boring, but it actually turned out that she was a really top international super spy with all these mad action skills. So then you could have this big action set piece at the beginning where this is all revealed, and then they get whisked to this country town to go and live with a dad that they haven’t seen for 11 years.

And I thought, well that’s a really strong set up and it also sets up a lot of tension. Because they’ve not met their dad before and they’re upset with their mum and they’re in this town where it’s so strange and so different, plus they fight all the time.

So that’s how I came up with the premise.

Allison

Right. I like that. See I’m going with you on the journey, and you haven’t even started yet. Fantastic.

So was this something that you had on your project board for a long time? Or was it that you’d written the last Friday Barnes book and now you’re thinking, okay, what am I going to do now?

Rachel

Oh no, I had it on my project board or post-it note. I write it on to post-it notes now. So I had half a dozen things and I’d been pitching a few things. Because I really want to do… Because I have an animation background, I really want to do a book, it’s a book, but less words, like 25,000, that’s heavily illustrated. Because…

You know, like the Treehouse or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Because I can illustrate a bit, but I really want to work with a good illustrator. I just think there’s a gap in the market. Because all those books, you think about it, The Treehouse, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Bad Guys… A lot of them, they’re by male authors and they’re very boy-orientated. And my daughter is a bit of a reluctant reader. She’s a very visual thinker. And I just thought I’d love to write… Because I’m a visual thinker, too. I would love to write a book for that. Because it would be more like writing animation where you’re thinking visually as well.

So I’d been pitching a lot of those ideas and hadn’t been able to get one up. And then I pitched this. I think I could have just gone in and pitched, you know, I’m going to write an agriculture manual and they would have said yes. Because Friday Barnes had done so well. And it does sound a little bit flakey. Oh, I’m going to write a book about brothers and sisters who fight all the time. But god bless them, they had faith in me and they said, yep, that’s okay.

I’ve already got the next two ideas I want to write, as well, all here. So I’m planning long in advance.

Allison

So just out of interest, because in Mapmaker 4 I have brothers who bicker constantly. Because I have two boys and that’s what brothers do.

Rachel

They say the best things, don’t they?

Allison

They do, and they’re hilarious. And some of the feedback that I got during the editing process from that, from a proof reader in fact, was that she felt that the boys were too mean to each other. And I was a bit like, yeah nah. Do you have boys? Obviously not. And I left them exactly the way they were. But do you get that sort of pushback at all when you’re writing slightly anarchic characters who are bickering and carrying on with each other?

Rachel

Um… The short answer is no. I think I have a very different relationship with my editor where I just pushback really hard. Because I come from TV where people are really mean. So if someone said that to me, I would just say no!

Allison

I just laughed and ignored it. So that was probably similar!

Rachel

It’s also because I do comedy, it’s got a different tone. So you can get away with way more when you do comedy. And also the thing is, because I’ve got 20 years’ experience in TV, yes they bicker, yes they’re constantly at each other, but I have internalised all the rules of television. So people say, oh, your characters, they say dreadful things to each other. And it’s like – point to one. Because they never hit each other. They never say swear words. So I’m very good at not stepping over the line because I’ve been trained very hard by all the television script editors I’ve worked for.

So yeah, part of it is I don’t think they say things to me like that because they know that I’m going to push back hard.

Allison

Are they slightly scared of you, Rachel? Is that what you’re saying?

Rachel

Well, they’re so young, as well. They’re like in their mid-20s. And I have all this inner rage from 20 years of working in TV and they’re just so nice and young. But they do, sometimes they steel themselves and they have a go at me about something. But it’s usually about something that’s a specific issue for them.

So I had a line where Loretta, and you couldn’t get a more feminist character than Loretta, and you really couldn’t get a more feminist author than me in terms of Nanny Piggins and Friday Barnes are great role models for kids and they say all this great stuff that challenges your concepts of gender roles. So I’ve got this long back catalogue of me saying all these interesting things and getting into kids minds and challenging their assumptions.

But Loretta, in the last book, she said something like ‘semantics are something feminists use when they haven’t got anything actual real to argue about’. And it was just an off the cuff comment. And Loretta’s a feminist. And also it says in the book, she’s a sociopath. So it’s not like I’m saying that this is true or that it’s my point of view. I’m just saying that Loretta said that. But it kind of blew their brains a bit.

And it does get to the point where I don’t get a lot of complaints, but you do sometimes get mentally ill people write to you and have a go at you about obscure things. And I just thought, you know what, I cannot be bothered receiving the emails at 2 o’clock in the morning from some nutbar telling me that I am degrading women. So I did change that.

Allison

You did change that.

Rachel

And the other thing that I change is in America, when my books are edited for the American audience, they’re very very sensitive about race issues. Very, very sensitive. And my editor over there, she’s a Chinese American. She’s born in America but she’s of Chinese descent. And she’s very, very conscious of anything about Asian representation. So she’s asked me to change a couple of things that she was sensitive about. And obviously that’s fine with me.

Ironically, though, she’s Chinese American. At one stage my editor over there was Japanese American. The illustrator who was working on the project, Dan Santat, is Thai American. And when they illustrated the book there was no one in the illustrations who wasn’t white.

Allison

Oh really?

Rachel

And so I was so upset. And I was like, you know, I come from a really multicultural part of Sydney. In my head, the characters don’t look like this. Because as I said, I don’t do big character descriptions. So from then on, I would write a list of the ethnicity of all the characters when I sent the book to them just so that would never, ever happen again.

Allison

It’s interesting, isn’t it? But then as a commercial author, you have to be across the sensitivities and interests of all the different markets that your books will be in. And I guess that involves doing what you have to do, doesn’t it?

Rachel

Yeah, but you think… Yeah. In terms of sensitivities, yes, definitely I will accommodate what they ask for, even if I do think they’re a bit oversensitive. But I couldn’t believe it with the illustration. It’s a consistent problem with illustrators, that you’ve got to remind them to do a broad… Fair enough, they’re focused on the one illustration, but when you’ve got a whole book you’ve got to make sure that the different ethnicities are represented.

Allison

All right, so just changing gears slightly. Let’s talk about promotion stuff. I mean, I follow you online across various different platforms, so I know that you’re already working on your third Peski book, even though the second one is only just recently out.

But how do you feel about that social media and keeping your profile up on line? How do you feel about that aspect of being an author?

Rachel

It’s full on. It’s definitely work and it definitely takes… It’s a big chunk of your time. Because the casual posts, there’s usually a lot more that goes into them than… You make it look… It’s the art of being in the public eye, you make it seem effortless but you put a lot of effort into getting it right. But getting a photo that you’re happy with…

And also being across all the different mediums. You’ve got to be very, very careful. Because Instagram, Facebook and Twitter all have very different sensibilities. You get more young people on Instagram, it’s obviously wordy on Twitter. All these things, you’ve got to be across all of that.

And it’s very, very important to your image and marketing yourself. And I live in a country town, it’s a huge part of how I project myself out on to the marketplace. So it is important and you do have to take it seriously.

I’ve got the cheapest iPhone possible, I got two years ago. And I’m going to look at buying one of these new iPhone Xs that cost $1200 – I don’t have much money, but I gotta look at it because when I was doing the tour with the other authors, they had these great phones, and their photos were so much better than mine. And you think, I need to be able to take photos that good. It’s part of…

Allison

Part of the job.

Rachel

Part of the job now. But when I started being an author ten years ago, I remember getting in the car with my publicist one day and saying, I can update my website from my phone now! And they’re going, really, you can do that?

When I started touring, you couldn’t get Google maps on your phone! But now I’ll do a school visit, I’ll get in the car, I’ll do the photo opp with the filters and stuff, I can put it on my website, on Instagram, on Facebook.

But it’s like I used to do it, but now at the end of the day you go back to your hotel and you spend an hour getting the photo just right and working out exactly what you want to say. And you only really want to post once a day so that your followers don’t get annoyed with you. And then you want to think about doing some posts so that you put it on Instagram and it shares automatically with Facebook and Twitter, because then you go up in the algorithms. But the problem with that is if you do that then you don’t get a photo on Twitter. So some posts you want to do separately so it looks better. So it’s really complicated!

Allison

Look at you, you’re all over it!

Rachel

Yeah. Well, and it’s like I’m not on top of it as other people. Getting into Facebook stories where you do multiple posts a day, to me that’s just so much effort. Because I’ve got a background in television production and I studied it at university. I’ve got the skills. I can get my office, I can get my lighting state in here to look fantastic. And I can do a video that looks great.

And so I was one of the first authors on YouTube with a YouTube channel because when I was writing my books I had very young babies and I was pregnant. And I went and bought a puppet, like custom made $1000 puppet from America of Nanny Piggins, because I knew I couldn’t tour, so I was going to do videos and put them on YouTube and my website. And I remember telling the publisher this ten years ago and they were literally laughing at me and rolling their eyes like I was a quaint idiot from another industry who didn’t know what they were doing. And now you think that’s what everyone does, book trailers and everything. And it’s like, yes, I did know what I was talking about all those years ago.

Allison

You were ahead of the curve.

Rachel

And you look on my YouTube channel, I have had so many thousands of people watch those videos.

Allison

So you also do a lot of school visits. You’re often out there talking to kids to help promote your books. What do you think is the key to a great school visit?

Rachel

I see it as like… When I did my first ever day of school visits, I did it up in the Blue Mountains. And I think it was Blackheath Public School and I think it was the second one of the day. And I was sitting at the back of the hall as the kids were filing in and I said to the teacher, is there anything you want me to talk about with the kids? Thinking that they’d want me to talk about some sort of lesson plan kind of thing. And she said, just get up there and sell your books. Because we want the kids to read books.

And so I’ve always had that in my mind of sell your books. Well, what’s the best way to sell my books. And it’s to be positive and upbeat about them, positive and upbeat about myself and about reading. So try to bring a lot of energy, positive energy.

I used to have a background in stand-up, so I handle it the way you would with stand-up. Which is you start out by doing a lot of crowd interaction, and that’s when you gauge the crowd, and also when they gauge you. So it’s your opportunity to let them know how far they can interact with you, but also to keep them in check if they get out of hand. And also give the teachers a wake up call. Like, do something, embarrass them a little at the start if they’re not paying attention. Just set it up. So do that for ten minutes.

And then I think, and then sell books. I’m really good at reading my own books. So I read my own books. And now I do two readings of about ten minutes each.

Allison

Wow.

Rachel

And the other thing I think is kids love stories. And the more you can spend your presentation telling them stories, the better. So if I’m going to do a ten minute reading, I’ll spend ten to 15 minutes setting it up. Telling them where I kame up with the ideas, and telling them stories about things my kids said to me, and telling them stories about how I got this idea for this beginning point.

So I’ll spend 15 minutes just telling them stories off the top of my head. And then I’ll go into the reading which is another story. And then I do about ten minutes of question and answer. Because then they’re giving me input and that’s the opportunity for them to hit on any syllabus points they want to hit on. Like, how do you come up with the ideas? What’s your process stuff.

And then I finish up with another reading, so I go back into telling stories, set it up, doing a reading. And then I just do some big entertainment stuff at the end. So depends on the group. I used to do the puppet stuff and Nanny Piggins would come out and yell at all the kids, and they would love that.

Or I’ve got rockets that I fire. And I aim at the teachers, and they love that. Because Nanny Piggins is a flying pig, she gets blasted out of a cannon. So I had a picture of a Nanny Piggins taped to a foam rocket. And I’d say, this is Nanny Piggins. I’d get in and blast it. I’d say, who am I going to hit in the head. And they’d say, me, me, me! And I’d say no, no, you’ve got to think creatively and laterally, that’s what writers do. I could hit you or I could hit one of your teachers. And they’re like, oh yeah! And I say, which is the most awful teacher here? And then they’re screaming and then I’m firing rockets.

And now I’ve got a song as well that I do all about why you should read books.

Allison

Is that where the bugle comes out?

Rachel

Oh no, the bugle’s the starting point. The bugle is key. People laugh at my bugle.

Allison

I’m not laughing!

Rachel

And they roll their eyes. No, no, you just literally did. And people are like, oh, literally you’re like a clown. But let me tell you, if you are in a tent at the Somerset Festival and there’s 400 kids in front of you and you go out to start your presentation and you say hello, and the microphone isn’t turned on and the sound, and you look up and the two sound kids are at the back of the thing talking to each other, not looking at you, so you’ve got to get all 400 people in that room looking at you simultaneously and get the sound kids attention and let them know the microphone isn’t on – a bugle is the best way to do that.

Allison

I was going to say, I think the first time I ever saw you, ever, was at Somerset. We were both on at Somerset and you walked past me and you had a bugle and I was like, I’m feeling a little bit underdressed here. I don’t have a bugle.

Rachel

Well, I got the idea from this poet I travelled with in New Zealand who had a huge conch shell. And he would play it as the kids were coming in to beckon them. And it sounded really mysterious and fantastic and I thought, I gotta get one. But then I thought, in Australia you’re not allowed to pick up things off the beach, and so I thought, what else can I get? So I got a bugle.

But it is fantastic, because particularly… The introduction you get at schools and libraries is usually diabolically bad. Like you’ll get some librarian who’s just angry or some librarian who has researched you extensively and wants to read out every fact about you before you start. And they basically just suck all the energy out of the room.

Or the best one is you’re there, and just before you start, they’ll just be screaming at the kids. ‘We’ve got this author! She’s come all the way from Bowral! And I’m sick of you and I want you to show respect! And anyone who doesn’t show respect….!’

And then you’ve got to come on and be the happy go lucky author.

Or the classic one is you go to a library, and they’ll read out the occupational health and safety rules before you start. And it’s like, if you have an injury, you can go to the break room…

I had one librarian who once, she came on before, and she was like, ‘ha, ha, if she’s boring, you can just get up and go to the toilet!’ And the door to the toilet was behind where I was going to be doing the presentation. And she said, ‘just get up and walk past her in the middle of the presentation, that’s fine.’

So when I came out, so that’s what you need the bugle for, is to undo the terrible introduction you’ve just had and bring energy back to the room. Because literally the bugle is so loud, that anyone in the immediate vicinity will flinch. And everyone will look at you like what is going on? And sometimes teachers burst in from other rooms to tell you off and then I just glare at them.

But anyway, so I did this in this one library, and I played my bugle and I had everyone’s attention. And I said, I just want you to know, anyone who gets up and walks past me to go to the toilet, I will kill you with my bare hands.

Allison

Right. And how did that go down for you, R A Spratt?

Rachel

Well, it did create a little bit of a lull, but it made me feel better. Sometimes you’ve just got to make yourself feel better.

There was a way they could go to the toilet by going out through the back and around a corridor. And I said, you can just do that. And then I went into my full entertaining show.

But sometimes, I just get something in my mind like I’m going to kill someone. And you’ve just got to say it. Because otherwise it’s going to fester in your brain. And once you’ve said it’s out and then you can move on.

Allison

Right. And so you move on beautifully with your bugle. All right, speaking of moving on, we must move on to the last question of our presentation today, which is your top three tips for writers. Apart from get yourself a bugle, what are your top three tips for writers?

Rachel

So seriously, you want it to be about writing? Or about being an author and the world of being an author?

Allison

Just whatever you want. This is your show. Having had this conversation where you kill people with your bare hands, and you push back, I’m not setting boundaries here.

Rachel

Well… If you are a writer and you get a book deal, or you’ve got your first foot on the first rung, the number one tip I give people and they never listen to me, but this is the number one tip that I’ve been giving people for 20 years is get yourself an entertainment accountant. Because you don’t just want your accountant that your dad had or your bog standard down the road accountant. Get one that is specific to the entertainment industry. There’s a couple of big agencies.

You’re not going to earn a lot of money, but you’re going to be able to claim a lot when you’re an author. Then there’s lots of other things like you can do income averaging. So the tax system works very differently for creative people. So you want an accountant who is across all that. Plus, you’re going to get your income in big fits and spurts. So you don’t want the tax department to go, hey, what’s going on? You want them to say, oh, they’ve got those really good entertainment accountants, they’ll be handling it.

So that’s my top tip. If you actually become a writer, and an author and get a book deal, get an accountant who can help you and who knows about the business. Because it’s going to be different. The entertainment business is different to any other business.

Allison

Okay. Cool.

Rachel

In terms of writing, people say to me, I’ve written a book and I can’t get it published, what should I do? And my answer is, have you considered that it’s a bad book? And you’ve written a bad book? And maybe you need to write another book and see if it’s better. And that might be a bad book too. And then you might have to write a third, fourth, or even fifth book.

Because Nanny Piggins was my third book. And the first two books I wrote were really awful. If you really want to do this, do you really want to do this? It’s like running a marathon. It sucks and it’s long. And it’s six months of your life to do something that you may fail at. Do you want to do this? Do you really want to do this? And have you accepted the possibility that the reason your book is not getting published is because it’s bad? And that maybe you need to start from scratch and write another one.

So that’s my other thing is, people complain they can’t get their book published. And it’s like, well have you tried writing another book? A different book?

And I don’t know about a third piece of advice. Trust your ability. Yeah, that would be my third piece of advice, is there’s all these people out there who promote themselves as mentors and writing coaches. And I’m lucky because I’ve had so many years’ experience in the television industry. But I really think you’ve got to have faith in yourself.

Part of my egomania is I don’t trust other people’s judgement. And it’s a lot of the time it’s turned out that I’ve been right and they have been wrong. So just be really, really careful of showing people your work and asking them for advice. People love giving advice. It doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. People just love being able to tell you stuff and feeling wise. But oftentimes their advice is no good or they’re an idiot.

Like my husband is a fantastic creative writer. Very talented comedy writer. When I wrote Nanny Piggins he gave me all this advice and I went through it and I followed about 5% of it. And I’m very grateful to him giving me all that advice, but I had enough judgement to know, no, that’s not a good idea because of this, and that’s not a good idea because of that. And no, you’re just wrong about this. And also to just know what I’ve done is good. So some of these things I’m like, yep, that’s great. But just have faith in yourself and be very, very careful of asking people for advice.

Allison

Fantastic.

Rachel

Particularly people who aren’t very successful themselves.

Allison

Yes.

Rachel

Like, your family. Your family are the worst people to get to read your material. Because they hate you to start with, so they’re only going to run you down.

Allison

Especially your kids, right?

Rachel

I showed my mother my first book and all she did was correct the spelling. It made me cry.

Allison

Oh! Oh well, you’ve moved on from there. So that’s good, right?

Rachel

Oh you never move on from those injuries, those emotional injuries.

Allison

Get yourself a bugle! All right, well, thank you so much for your time today, Rachel. Really, really appreciate it. Some fantastic advice in there.

Rachel

Well, I hope I was helpful. And I hope I haven’t shattered anyone’s image of me. Because I was told this is for grownups. So I want to be frank and honest. When I’m R A Spratt I have a different persona and I’m more upbeat and I’m happy and jokey. But I want to be honest and helpful to people. So that’s why I’ve taken this conversation quite seriously today.

Allison

And you have. And I’m very much appreciative of that. And I’m sure that our listeners are also very appreciative of it as well. We very much appreciate your time.

Rachel

Well, good luck to you all. And just ignore everyone. You’re geniuses. Just have lots of goes. That’s the summary of my advice.

Allison

Thanks a lot.


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