Ep 326 Meet Victoria Mackinlay, author of ‘Ribbit Rabbit Robot’.

In Episode 326 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Victoria Mackinlay, author of Ribbit Rabbit Robot. Discover 5 tips on how to nail your second novel. Scenes from The Gruffalo and other books by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler have been reimagined to help children through coronavirus. Plus, we have 3 book packs containing Sue Whiting’s latest kids books The Book of Chance and Good Question to give away.

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Show Notes

5 Things to Know About Writing Your Second Novel (and one bonus tip!)

The Gruffalo has been reimagined to help children through coronavirus

What book sales data is revealing about isolation

South Coast StayList

Writer in Residence

Victoria Mackinlay

Born in Scotland and raised in England, Victoria taught herself to write when she was three by copying out all the letters on the cereal box when she should have been eating her breakfast.

She studied Modern Languages and Literature at Bristol University which allowed her to spend six months on a tropical island dodging lava from an erupting volcano and six months eating gelato in Florence.

After a round-the-world trip which included: a very close encounter with a great white shark, climbing some of the highest peaks on the planet and generally being awestruck at the beauty of the Earth and its citizens, Victoria finally got a ‘real’ job with Google in Dublin, helping some of the biggest companies in the world with their online strategies.

Victoria moved to Australia with Google in 2008 and was promoted to a job with a very fancy title which meant she travelled all over Asia Pacific and worked with wonderful and interesting people.

She now freelances and writes from her home in Sydney where she lives with her husband, daughter, two cats and a lot of plants that look like aliens.

Her debut kid’s book Ribbit Rabbit Robot was published in 2020.

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Competition

WIN: 3x 2-book packs containing Sue Whiting’s latest kids books ‘The Book of Chance’ and ‘Good Question’

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

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Interview Transcript

 

Valerie Khoo 

Thanks so much for joining us today. Victoria.

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Congratulations on your first book. And I know it’s going to be the first of many. I’m so excited. I did catch up with you in person a few weeks ago, and I held the book in my hands. And it was just so wonderful to be able to flip through it and to you know, see it, it’s real. So for those people who haven’t got your book yet, tell us what it’s called and what it’s about.

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Yeah, show us So it’s called it’s a bit of a tongue twister. So it’s called Ribbit, Rabbit, Robot. And it’s a story of a friendly frog, a greedy rabbit and a robot with a short fuse, and their adventures or their chaotic adventures with a magic lamp. So there’s a lot of wordplay in there and lots of different themes running through it, actually. But yeah, that’s basically what it is.

 

Valerie Khoo 

And so it’s a picture book, and it’s your first picture book or your first book. Now, how in the world did you come up with an idea of a frog and a rabbit and a robot?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Yeah, that’s like a very good question. It’s quite random. And so this story came about I was playing in the bath with my daughter, I think was three then and she had been given a frog sponge for Christmas. So we were it has like a frog on the top that squirts water. So we were having good fun with that and kind of saying ribbit, ribbit, ribbit and spreading each other with water. And then obviously, we were in the bus so we were cleaning ourselves or rubbing ourselves with the sponge so we were kind of thing rabid and then rabbit and we were just having yeah just having really good fun and then that kind of stayed with me because it was something that she continued to talk about and kind of asking for.

 

And then I thought yeah those words sound funny together and what other words follow their formation so you know with a r and a t and then there was rabbit robots and then I started just yeah it’s the ideas that have stuck with me and coming up with all these different words and then I kind of just set myself a challenge so thinking and is it possible to actually tell a full story with a story arc and you know, drama and everything in there using only those words and. I remember reading like a while ago about how Dr. Seuss did similar things. I think he had a bet with his publisher. And for green eggs and ham was the bet was you know, can you tell a story in 50 words and he went ahead and did that. So I didn’t really set out to replicate what Dr. Seuss did. But just I thought that was an interesting thing. And you know, I’ve never tried to write a story and setting myself a challenge. But that was certainly how this one came about.

Valerie Khoo 

And so have you always wanted to write picture books? Or was this something that came about really, as a result of this experience?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

No, so I think I started writing picture books when I had my daughter, but I’ve always wanted to write I really have been writing since I was three and a half years old. And if you ask my parents, you know what they would have thought I would have been it would be an author because, you know, I just love reading, I was a complete bookworm. And I studied Languages and Literature at university. And I’ve always written, I’ve kept diaries.

 

Yeah, so I’ve always written but I didn’t picture books wasn’t necessarily the genre I was going to write in. But I think when I started reading picture books to my daughter and I took the course at the Australian Writers’ Centre. And it just totally clicks. And it was literally the perfect genre for me. I just adore picture books. And I can’t draw or do the art. And I just love that whole medium, you know what the artists brings as well, it’s just yeah, so I yeah, I love them.

 

Valerie Khoo 

So I want to come back to Ribbit Rabbit Robot very soon. But I think what people would be interested to know is just your journey to this point so far. Now, you’ve always been interested in writing, but maybe what you could do is just give us just a potted career history just so that we can see what you’ve done in your career up until this point.

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Yeah, well, I’ve had a pretty varied career. So I studied modern languages at university. So say literature, so I studied French and Italian. So I think a lot of people would have thought, oh, you’ll become a teacher. And that’s sort of a logical career progression, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left University. So I went travelling round the world as you do and just had amazing adventures, so for those 52 weeks, and I think it was when I was climbing Machu Picchu in South America, one of the guys that was on that track with me mentioned that he worked in medical sales in London. And he was like, I can get you a job. And it’s really good. You get a company car, you get a you know, free phone, and it’s pretty good money and all of that kind of things. And I didn’t have any other plans.

 

So when I came back from travelling, I looked him up and I ended up literally the most random draw job ever driving around London or the NHS hospitals selling drills and saws for orthopaedic theatres and I faint. I’m a needle phobe, I faint every time I have an injection. And now I was literally standing in operating theatres every day watching people’s, you know, scalps being pulled down, or they were drilling into people’s brains and just, it was just honestly just crazy. So that was an amazing experience. Actually, I have to say But just totally unplanned. And I was selling obviously. And I did, randomly, quite unexpectedly, I sold a ton of medical equipment and got promoted. And everyone thought I was doing a great job at this, which was just quite surprising to me. And then and I was just my heart wasn’t in it, you know, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do.

 

So then I back in those days, this is 2006. I was in London. I also wasn’t mad about London and I was open to living abroad and with my languages, you know, keen to do more travel. So I put my CV up on Monsters. I don’t know if you remember Monsters, but back in the day, it was that kind of wanted advertisement. So I put my CV out there. And then I got a cold call from Google and saying, you know, we’ve seen you can speak languages. Would you like to come to Dublin and do an interview with us? And really back in those days, that was before anyone knew what Google was? So I remember chatting with my friends and they were like, you know what, this Google thing? What were the other ones, you know, like Yahoo and those one with a dog, Ask Jeeves and all that.

 

Yeah. And so I flew across to Dublin. And yet they offered me a job immediately. So I was really there right at the beginning 2006 when Google was a start-up, so it was just not anything as it is now. And it was just amazing. And then I just was completely taken along with the Google, the Google craziness just very absorbed in that and again, did where I was selling ads and working on their online teams advertising and with publishers Google. Not, you know, not like HarperCollins and those but publishers to Google is anyone with a website, so I managed different teams, and then they sent me over to Australia, and I think in 2008, and so I was just you name really obsessed with Google and just caught up in all of that kind of thing. And then I think it was 2013. And at that role at that point, I was leading a team in APAC and doing a lot of travel. And it was again sales sort of big revenue numbers.

 

And I was just suddenly just hit me that I’m not using my creative brain at all. And I’d stopped writing, which I’ve always done. And I just suddenly, like, everything in my body was like, I need some sort of creative outlet. And then I googled creative writing courses. And you guys or, you know, the Australian Writers’ Centre came up, and I took an evening course, you know, the beautiful centre in lavender Bay. And it’s just amazing and just fully sort of immersed myself into that.

 

And then when I was on maternity leave, I took more courses. And I did the freelance writing courses and started making and sort of little bit of money. I’m not gonna say it was lots but writing for different parenting magazines and that kind of thing. And then when my daughter And that’s when I saw the picture book course. And I was like, okay, I’m gonna do this. And that’s so yeah, that’s how, how it happened.

 

Valerie Khoo 

No, I think that’s fascinating. So you did the picture, book course. And then it clicked with you. And that sometimes happens, people do a couple of different courses and then they get to the one they go, this is the one that I’m gonna, you know, really sink my teeth into that really sits well with me. What about picture books are you drawn to?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

It’s a really good question. I mean, I think like I said earlier, it is that I love that third level that you get I love you know, the pictures is that the pictures and the illustrations as a whole art form in itself, and I just have so much admiration for the illustrators that do it because I can’t illustrate and I think also, it’s not the writing picture books is easy, but they are short.

 

So for me, I like the idea that you know, it’s let’s just say 300 words, you can get those words down. I mean, you can write a draft, it can be pretty terrible, but you can do that in one sitting. I think sort of the longer form novels, and that’s not to say, I wouldn’t ever write anything longer because I do have lots of ideas for longer things. But I find larger word counts, quite intimidating, a little bit scary.

 

So there’s something lovely about, you know, having that like getting those words down, and you get that accomplishment. And then you can go back and once it’s done, you know, it’s just edit, edit, edit, and you make all your different versions of it. And it’s quite neat. I think I’m quite ordered and controlling maybe, and I love that, but it all comes. And yeah, I think that’s the best way to describe them.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Let’s talk about the spoke when you were drafting the manuscript for this book, just give us a bit of idea maybe almost like a timeline of okay, so it took me this long to do my first draft. And then I did all these different kind of edits, like what did you do to it, you know? To polish it and really get to the stage where it was great.

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Yeah. So as I said, it started off in the bath with my daughter. And then it started with me just jotting down words, I’ve got pages and pages in notebook where I’ve literally put every vowel in every different place to try and work out which different words I had to play with. So that looks a bit crazy in my notebook. And then yeah, writing different drafts. I’m in two different critique groups. And so those different drafts went through multiple, multiple critiques as well and got, you know, feedback from that, I think, between my two critique groups as at least 10 or 12 people. So that went through lots of different ones.

 

I also do make dummy picture books. So this one, especially out of all my manuscripts probably went through the most dummies. So you know, just making a little fake book or whatever does that have paper and stapling it and then just testing out the different page turns. There’s quite a lot of reveals in this, and an unanswered question. So the page turns are really important. And then I guess reading it to the different kids that I know and getting feedback from them as well.

 

And that was probably, yeah, that was probably it before I submitted to my publisher. So this is actually my second picture book contracted, but obviously the first to come out. So I already had a relationship and with my publisher at Scholastic, so I was able to submit this one and directly to her. And actually, this one I would say is, is was the fastest from that first draft to contract was actually quite quick, because yeah, for other ones, it’s taken much longer. So I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

 

Valerie Khoo 

The first contract that’s yet to come out that book is yet to come out, is that correct?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Yeah, yeah.

 

Valerie Khoo

Okay. So you can tell us as much or as little as you can or want about that since it’s yet to come out, but maybe talk people through the process of that first submission. How you go about it? And you know what happened?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Yeah, so I did, I went through a little timeline because I did the picture book course at the Australian Writers’ Centre in January 2017. And I didn’t submit anything to anyone until March 2018. So that’s, I guess, 14 months later. So during that time, I mean, I was writing a lot of different manuscripts and getting things critiqued and going to different festivals and that kind of thing. And I just didn’t feel, I just wasn’t confident, I suppose, or just didn’t feel anything was polished enough to submit.

 

And then in that March, there was the CKT or the Creative Kids Tales festival. And so I got a ticket for that. And that was where I booked my first manuscript assessment, which isn’t, it’s not really a submission. I think these things you just have to really approach as you’re meeting a publisher, and you’re getting feedback. I think a lot of people feel like that’s a pitching session. There are pitching sessions at those conferences, as well.

 

But yeah, I submitted a manuscript. And so it was quite crazy when you think about it, because that was she was the first publisher to see my manuscript and she liked it and acquired it, which is I don’t know how often that really happens. So it was a bit crazy, really, but yeah, so I had an appointment with Clare Hallifax from Scholastic. And yeah, I was very nervous. I remember going in to that appointment, just really feeling quite sick, actually, and then sat down with her and pretty much straight off the bat. She said, I really like this, which was very exciting and put me at ease. And then she had some feedback on that manuscript. And I went back and made some edits and submitted it to her, but it came back quite quickly as a yes. And yeah, and that was my first book which is being illustrated by quite a big named illustrator who’s pretty busy. So that is why I think it’s taken longer.

 

And like Ribbit Rabbit Robot is illustrated by a Scholastic Book designer. It’s her first book as well, but I suppose being in-house, I mean, she’s incredibly busy. And she’s got another book coming out. And I expect many more after, you know, because you can see how talented she is. But anyway, so I think that’s just what happened with the order of the books.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yes. And so when is the second book coming out?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

That was due to come out in August. And the publishers are all I think across the board, given the current situation, everything is being moved around as everyone sort of figures out, adjusting to this new world. So at the moment, it’s now scheduled for next May. So may 2021.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Okay, but still a book a year is not bad, you know? Because I understand because it’s like momentum has started for you in your authority. Korea, because I hear there’s gonna be a third book.

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Yeah, there is. I can’t really say too much. But yeah, this is at least gonna be a third and hopefully many more.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Yeah, yes. Right. Very, very exciting. So when you’re writing, now is the second book to come out? That’s a picture book as well?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Yeah. All picture books for now.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Yeah. Okay. So when you are writing your picture book like it sounds like you can write the first kind of draft fairly quickly but then there’s an incredibly rigorous editing process because you go to your critique group, you get all of these opinions. What do you know to listen to when not listen to?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Yeah, I think it’s a good question. I love my critique group so much, I honestly can’t praise them enough. But I think there’s just something in my guts and often actually, even for Ribbit Rabbit Robot there was there’s a sort of point of contention and there was quite a lot of disagreement between people. And over the ending, really, and it’s great. I really appreciate people being completely honest. But it just it helps me with my resolve of, I think sometimes when someone challenges something, it makes you realize, you know what’s important and sort of you come down firm on what’s actually right for the story.

 

But and I mean, my critique groups have helped me so much. And there’s lots of brilliant ideas that some of them have come up with in the book, and that feedback is so helpful. And it’s just I think you’ve got to be open and you’ve got to listen to everything people say, and they will completely raise things that you haven’t thought of before, which is great as well. And so I find it I find them very, very helpful. And the other good thing is that we’re in a weekly critique. It’s also a motivation to you always have to have something to submit. So for people who have very busy lives and lots of other things going on, it’s you know, you have to keep up with that momentum, which is amazing.

Valerie Khoo

So you submit something every week?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

One of us will. Yeah, I think is it there’s six of us in one group and I think seven or eight maybe in the other. So yeah, every month and a half, you’ve got to have something new or you can submit an old manuscript that you’ve edited.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Yes. Now because you said that you have read it to children, like you read it to children, just to gauge their reaction? What do you look out for in their reaction? And how does that impact then any changes you might make?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Firstly, I look to see if I’m holding their attention, I think the worse you’re reading something and they don’t want to hear it or kind of off they go. I’m actually I’m really lucky. The kids in my circle are very highly literate kids. I mean, you know, they get read to a lot and then and then obviously I think If you’re reading to your own children, they’re always gonna say nice things. Although my daughter once said, I do love it Mummy and I’m not just saying that because I love you. So she can actually be quite [inaudible] with her feedback. And see, I think, yeah, and you’ve got to see and then are they laughing at the right spots?

 

And I think, living in that world with kids, and especially now with the whole homeschooling thing, and going on, I think this is actually quite a magical time for creators even I don’t really have time to write. I’m just literally trying to soak up this like intense time with the kids that I’m looking after. And just seeing what kids find funny, or just the things that they say, you know, the way that they speak, I just find it so beautiful. They’re so astute in their observations of the worlds I think it’s magical.

 

Valerie Khoo 

So you sound like you get a bunch of ideas from lots of different places. You talk in terms of collecting them. Like you’ve said that your notebook has like lots of Ribbits, Rabbits, Robots. But in terms of collecting your ideas, is that in one notebook? Do you group the ideas into themes? How do you know when an idea is more than just a bunch of words on a page and could potentially be a book?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Yeah, so I’m gonna completely contradict myself because I know earlier I said, I’m really [inaudible]. And the answer to that question is I’m completely disorganized. So I have about, I don’t know 20 notebooks. I just love notebooks. I just love all of them and paper as well, I’m obsessed with paper. So now I honestly probably in every single notebook, I have like an ideas page, and then I’ll lose the ideas page, and then I’ll start another one.

 

And I also have, you know, kind of mood board in my little book nook, which actually that is quite good that has things that kids have said to me that have stuck with me and I’ll pin them on to that lead board. So there’s probably loads of things out there that I’ve completely forgotten about. So I suppose it has to, if it’s something that sticks with me, and at the moment, I’ve got, I think, five picture books that I need to write that, you know, I’ve got pretty in my head, they’re pretty well formed, and I need to sit down and write them. But some of them are quite complex ideas that maybe I’m struggling with a little bit more.

 

So I think a lot of writers are more disciplined than me. And that, you know, they force themselves to write and, you know, I’m not really like that, I find that sometimes that is just the perfect time. And yesterday for my third book, I can literally remember when it happened. And again, it was something I’ve been playing around with in my head for a long time. And then suddenly, I was just like, Oh, my God, this is it. And I kind of spent my husband and my daughter out and that was, I was like, go you have to get out of the house. And then I just sat down and it just suddenly came out. So it was a bit like giving birth.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Yeah, wow. If that’s the case, do you let the idea or the story swirl around up in your head till the point where you literally know what’s going to happen at every point.

 

Victoria Mackinlay

No, I don’t think so. Because that was a rewrite.

 

But no, not necessarily. Because I do still do a lot of editing. I’ll be honest, I think every single book that I’ve written or the ones that will be published, that’s so different as well. And that’s another thing. And yeah, my second book is so different to Ribbit Rabbit Robot, and the third one’s probably more like Ribbit Rabbit Robot, but, and they’re quite different. And some of the are in rhyme. Some of them are in prose. And I think and that’s probably across all my life. I’m not really I like to do different things, I think is that it keeps it interesting. And I think the process for each one is, is different. Yeah, they haven’t been the same at all.

 

Valerie Khoo 

So you did the course Writing Picture Books at the Australian Writers’ Centre. What did you find useful about the course that has helped you in your writing journey?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Because I rocked up to that course, as I say, in January 2017. And I didn’t even know that a picture book has 32 pages that was, you know, first week, the tutor kind of told me that and I was like, wow. So I mean, I was, as I say, I knew a lot about literature, you know, studied to quite high level, you know, university and that kind of thing. And I read a lot, but I did not, you know, I didn’t know that really, there is a formula for picture books. And I think, even though you know, you can break some of the rules, you need to know the rules and understand them to be able to break them. So that was just that course was amazing. And I think, as I say, I just gelled with picture books. And that was the moment when I realized okay, this is what I’m going to be writing. And but it taught me every you know, from structuring a picture book, and also how to pitch to editors and how to get in front of publishers. So lots and lots of things.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Now, a lot of people think that you do have to know how to draw or know somebody who knows how to draw. And you say that you don’t. Is that something that you thought you had to be able to do? Or what did you discover about that process?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

I think I knew, because you can see in the picture books that I read some are author illustrators, but a lot weren’t. So yeah, I knew I didn’t have to illustrate my own book. But I think it was interesting and finding out the fact that in most picture books, certainly in my case, that author and illustrator don’t work together cannot really interesting. And even you know, people like Julia Donaldson didn’t meet Axel Scheffler, I think till they’re six book together. So I think for regular people reading picture books they had, like I certainly had this image of the author and illustrator sort of sitting next to each other brainstorming bouncing ideas off each other. And with traditional publishing, the author and illustrator are kept completely separately, really. And I think every publisher works slightly differently.

 

But certainly my experience with Scholastic, I didn’t have any contact with Sofia, I haven’t actually haven’t actually met her. We were going to meet up at the book launch, which obviously was the virus. But we Yeah, we didn’t communicate. And I think, I think really this book that was to the benefit of the book, because she’s just taking my words, and you just created this whole and whole world for the characters in the system. Yeah.

 

Valerie Khoo 

What’s the most challenging thing? And what’s the most rewarding thing about writing picture books for you?

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Gosh, I can’t it’s hard to think about challenge because I just really love it so much. There must be something difficult about it.

 

Yeah, but let me just think for the most rewarding. I have to say to actually get published, this was probably, you know, it’s a dream, as I say, since I was three and a half years old. So when I got that email from Clare to say, you know, it’s a Yes, it was just, you know, that’s a joy that you think you get to experience very rarely in life. Like it’s just pure, just like dance around the house scream out loud, but you know, it’s just, and I didn’t think it would happen that quickly. And I think I was very surprised that it could be that easy for me, really. And so yeah, that and getting more picture books accepted, you know, because then you think, oh, am I just a one hit wonder, Is it just going to be one book? And but to have to see that this could be potentially a career is just a dream come true. So that’s amazing.

 

Valerie Khoo 

It obviously is panning out into a career because you know if you’ve got more on the way, so finally, what’s your top three tips for aspiring writers? Who hoped to be doing like what you’re doing one day.

 

Victoria Mackinlay

So yeah, I’ve thought about this. And I’m going to be quite specific with picture books. I mean, maybe this could apply to everything. And also, it’s quite focused into actually getting published as well, because I think a lot of listeners, that’s sort of the goal. So the first my first tip is definitely to educate yourself. So it’s, I think you can come at this with brand new ideas. And that’s wonderful. Because sometimes the more courses you do you maybe you end up just writing a bit like everyone else, but you do need to understand the process, the structure, there are certain rules that I think need to be applied. And so yeah, I’d say educate yourself to go to as many conferences and do as many courses as you can, because that certainly helped me.

 

And then secondly, I think this one comes up all the time, but you know, read a ton of books, and it’s certainly with picture books. We were reading hundreds of books, getting loads from the library, and you know, you need to see what’s out there. And when you read books also research the publishers because when you when you read a book, you can kind of see what sort of style different publishers publish and what might be, which publisher might be a good fit for the kind of things that you’re writing. So sort of read them quite thoroughly. And with that kind of angle in mind.

 

And then thirdly is network. And so if you’re looking for a publisher, I do think network is really important. And I learned about SCBWI, which is a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and through that Australian Writers’ Centre course and they’ve just been amazing. They’ve been so supportive of me, but you know, every meetup that they have, they’ll get a publisher along pretty much most of the meetups and you can have assessments or just get to get face to face with the publisher because most of them are close to unsolicited manuscripts.

 

And not just with publishers, but just network, you know, with other authors and illustrators and support other people and you know, lift them up and just be good to people because I found even from doing magazine and newspaper writing. I’ve got friends with editors of magazines who are now also promoting my book, you know, through their thing. So you know, you want you don’t want your network to be too small, but you know, just yeah, have good relationships with people. And yeah, I think so. That’s a bit long winded again.

 

Valerie Khoo 

That’s brilliant, that some really, really practical and very, very useful. And I have no doubt that this is the start of a very long career for you in writing. Congratulations on Ribbit Rabbit Robot. And good luck for the next one as well. Thank you so much for joining us today.

 

Victoria Mackinlay

Thank you for having me. It’s been great to chat to you. Thank you.


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