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

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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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(If you click the link above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

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

Thanks so much for joining us today, Victoria.

Victoria

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

Valerie

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

Yeah, sure. 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

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

Yeah, that’s a very good question. It’s quite random. So this story came about, I was playing in the bath with my daughter who I think was three then, and she had been given a frog sponge for Christmas. So we were… It has a frog on the top that squirts water. So we were having good fun with that and kind of saying ribbit, ribbit, ribbit and squirting each other with water. And then obviously, we were in the bath so we were cleaning ourselves or rubbing ourselves with the sponge, so we were saying “ribbit” and then “rub it” and we were just having really good fun.

And then that kind of stayed with me because it was something that she continued to talk about and asking for. And then I thought, those words sound funny together and what other words follow that formation? So, you know, with a r and a b and a t. And then there was rabbit, robot. And then I started just… The idea sort of stuck with me and coming up with all these different words.

And then I kind of just set myself a challenge, so thinking is it possible to actually tell a full story with a story arc and drama and everything in there using only those words? And I remember reading a while ago about how Dr. Seuss did similar things. I think he had a bet with his publisher. For Green Eggs and Ham the bet was 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 I’ve never tried to write a story and setting myself a challenge. But that was certainly how this one came about.

Valerie

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

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 what they would have thought I would have been it would be an author because I just loved reading, I was a complete bookworm. And I studied Languages and Literature at university. 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, it just totally clicked. It was literally the perfect genre for me. I just adore picture books. 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

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 a potted career history just so that we can see what you’ve done in your career until this point.

Victoria

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. 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 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. He was like, I can get you a job, it’s really good, you get a company car, you get a free phone, and it’s pretty good money and all of that kind of thing.

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 job ever driving around London to all 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 there I was literally standing in operating theatres every day watching people’s scalps being pulled down while they were drilling into people’s brains. And 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 tonne 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… But 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 Monster. I don’t know if you remember Monster, back in the day, Monster.com. So I put my CV up there and then I got a cold call from Google 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's this Google thing? What of Alta Vista? Or what were the other ones, like Yahoo and there was one with a dog, Ask Jeeves, and all that.

Valerie

Ask Jeeves, yes.

Victoria

Yeah. And so I flew across to Dublin and 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, I was selling ads and working on their online teams advertising and with publishers to Google. 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, I think in 2008. So I was just 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 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 it suddenly just hit me that I’m not using my creative brain at all. And I’d stopped writing, which I’d 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 at the beautiful centre in Lavender Bay. And it was just amazing and fully immersed myself into that.

And then when I was on maternity leave, I took more courses. I did the freelance writing courses and started making a 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 was four, 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 it happened basically. Quite a long story!

Valerie

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 and they go, this is the one that I’m gonna really sink my teeth into, that really sits well with me.

What about picture books are you drawn to?

Victoria

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 the pictures. The pictures and the illustrations is 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 that writing picture books is easy, but they are short. So for me, I like the idea that, 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 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 having that, 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. So it’s quite neat. I think I’m quite ordered and controlling maybe, and I love that, but it all comes, yeah, quite… I think that’s the best way to describe them.

Valerie

So let’s talk about this book. When you were drafting the manuscript for this book, just give us a bit of an 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 shape it and polish it and really get to the stage where it was great?

Victoria

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 a 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. So those different drafts went through multiple, multiple critiques as well and got, you know, feedback from… I think between my two critique groups there must be 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, just out of 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.

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 with my publisher at Scholastic, so I was able to submit this one directly to her.

And actually, this one I would say was the fastest from that first draft to contract, it 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

So the first contract, that’s yet to come out? That book is yet to come out, is that correct?

Victoria

That's right. Yeah.

Valerie

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 did you go about it? And what happened?

Victoria

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 that one, 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 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

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

Victoria

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

Okay, but still a book a year is not bad, you know? Because I understand… It’s like momentum has started for you in your authorial career. Because I hear that there’s going to be a third book.

Victoria

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

Valerie

Yes, very, very exciting. So when you’re writing… Now, is the second book to come out, that’s a picture book as well?

Victoria

Yeah. All picture books for now.

Valerie

They're all picture books. Okay. So when you are writing your picture book, like it sounds like you can write the first pass 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 and not listen to?

Victoria

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’s a sort of point of contention and there was quite a lot of disagreement between people 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 realise what’s important and you come down firm on what’s actually right for the story.

But 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 their 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 so 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

So you submit something every week? Each of you?

Victoria

One of us will.

Valerie

Oh, I see. One of you submit. Okay.

Victoria

Yeah, I think 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

Yes. Now when you, 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

I think, you look, I look firstly to see if I’m holding their attention. I think the worst thing is if 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 obviously I think if you’re reading to your own children, they’re always going to 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 brutal with her feedback.

So, I think you’ve got to see… And then are they laughing at the right spots? I mean, humour's massive. Do they find things funny?

And I think the fact that we're living in that world with kids, and especially now with the whole home-schooling thing going on, I think this is actually quite a magical time for creators. Even though I don’t really have time to write. I’m just literally trying to soak up this intense time with the kids that I’m looking after.

And just… Because it's 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 world. I honestly just think it’s magical.

Valerie

So you sound like you get a bunch of ideas from lots of different places. In terms of collecting them, like you’ve said that your notebook has lots of ribbits, rabbits, robots, all these words in it. But in terms of collecting your ideas, is it 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

Yeah, so I’m gonna completely contradict myself because I know earlier I said, I’m really organised. And the answer to that question is I’m completely disorganised. So I have about, I don’t know, 20 notebooks. I just love notebooks. I could just buy all of them. I just fall in love with… And I love paper as well. I’m obsessed with paper. So no, I honestly probably in every single notebook I'll have an ideas page, and then I’ll lose the ideas page, and then I’ll start another one.

And I also have a 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 mood 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 in that they force themselves to write and I’m not really like that. I find that sometimes there's just the perfect time. And as I say 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 sent 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

Really?

Victoria

Yeah.

Valerie

Wow. So if that’s the case, do you let the idea or the story swirl in your head till the point where you literally know what’s going to happen at every point?

Victoria

No, I don’t think so. Because that one… Well, 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, they're so different as well. And that’s another thing. My second book is so different to Ribbit Rabbit Robot, and the third one’s probably more like Ribbit Rabbit Robot, but they’re quite different. And some of them are in rhyme. Some of them are in prose. I think, and that’s probably across all my life. I’m not really… I like to do different things, I think because that keeps it interesting. And I think the process for each one is different. Yeah, they haven’t been the same at all.

Valerie

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

Well, everything really. 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, I'd studied to quite a high level at 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 can break some of the rules, you need to know the rules and understand them to be able to break them. So that course was amazing. And I think, as I say, I just gelled with picture books. And that was the moment when I realised okay, this is what I’m going to be writing.

But it taught me everything, from structuring a picture book, also how to pitch to editors, and how to get in front of publishers. So lots and lots of things.

Valerie

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

I think I knew, again, because you can see in the books that I read some are author illustrators, but a lot aren’t. So I knew I didn’t have to illustrate my own book. But I think it was interesting finding out the fact that in most picture books, and certainly in my case, that author and illustrator don’t work together. I found that really interesting. And even people like Julia Donaldson didn’t meet Axel Scheffler, I think, till their sixth 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 I think 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 met her. We were going to meet up at the book launch, which obviously was cancelled thanks to the virus. But we didn’t communicate. And I think, really this book, that was to the benefit of the book, because she’s just taken my words and just created this whole world for the characters. And she just completely blew me away with her pictures.

Valerie

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

Victoria

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

Valerie

That's okay. If there isn't, that's great!

Victoria

Yeah, I haven't… Let me just think. But the most rewarding, I have to say getting it published, I think to actually get published 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 was just pure, just like dance around the house scream out loud. It’s just… And I didn’t think it would happen that quickly. I think I was very surprised that it could be that easy for me, really.

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? But to see that this could be potentially a career is just a dream come true. So that’s amazing.

Valerie

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

Victoria

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 my first tip is definitely to educate yourself. So 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, 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 read a tonne of books. 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 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 read them quite thoroughly and with that kind of angle in mind.

And then thirdly is network. So if you’re looking for a publisher, I do think network is really important. And I learned about SCBWI, which is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators through that Australian Writers’ Centre course and they’ve just been amazing. They’ve been so supportive of me. But 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 a publisher because most of them are closed to unsolicited manuscripts.

And not just with publishers, but just network, you know, with other authors and illustrators and support other people and 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 through their thing. So you know, 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

No, that’s brilliant. That's 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. It is hard to say! It's great, though. And good luck for the next one as well. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Victoria

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

 

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