Ep 368 Meet Esther Krogdahl, author of ‘Grumbelina’ [Interview]

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Meet Esther Krogdahl, author of the gorgeous Grumbelina. Hear how Esther drew inspiration for the book from her daughter's “terrible threes” and learn about her fascinating career writing for children's virtual reality games.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie Khoo 

Thanks so much for joining us today, Esther.

 

Esther Krogdahl

Hi, no worries.

 

Valerie Khoo 

You've written this gorgeous picture book, Grumbelina. I mean, already, just the title got me in. But it's a gorgeous story and beautifully illustrated by Aleksandra Szmidt. So just before we get launched into this chat, because I think you've got a really interesting background, tell us what the book is about. It's a picture book. So tell us what the book is about.

 

Esther Krogdahl 

It is. Yeah. So it's about a little girl called Hazel. And when she turns three and a half, she starts to have some pretty big emotions. And she turns into a little bit of a monster. So her parents ride it out, and have a little bit of a laugh on the way. Because Grumbelina really has some quite outrageous demands. Yeah, and it's just a little rhyming story about Hazel and her transformation.

 

Valerie Khoo

Now, this is your first published picture book. Is that right?

 

Esther Krogdahl

That's right. Yep.

 

Valerie Khoo

So when did you write it and what inspired you to write it?

 

Esther Krogdahl

I wrote it probably close to two years ago now. When I was living in New Zealand. And it was inspired by my own daughter. And when she turned three and a half she really, like Grumbelina, became a little big difficult, shall we say? And we were living away from family at the time, so we were quite isolated. And so we sort of, I guess I use the opportunity to look on the bright side and have a bit of a laugh about it. And get through that time with Hazel being a bit of a grump.

 

Valerie Khoo

Now, had you always wanted to write picture books? Like, is there a particular love for picture books that you have? Or was just this story that you just kind of wrote and it ended up being a picture book?

 

Esther Krogdahl

Yeah, sort of the latter, I guess. But being a mum of a young daughter, you read a lot of picture books. Lots and lots and lots. And I guess I was quite critical of a lot of them. You know, I was thinking, wow, how did this get published? Or, you know, I could do better than this. And that was part of the driver as well. So I just thought, Well, why not? I'll give it a crack. Yeah, and it turned out quite well.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Yeah, absolutely. Now, in your day job, or in your other life, just tell us a little bit about what you do in your other life. Your regular life.

 

Esther Krogdahl 

My regular working life, my day job, shall we say? So I work for a games development company. And so I am a product owner, which is essentially like a project manager for software engineering projects in games.

 

Valerie Khoo

What does that mean? Really?

 

Esther Krogdahl 

Um, so I guess I manage a portfolio of projects that are related to enhancements to existing games or making new games. And I work with software engineers to kind of understand and design the games and then actually build them and roll them out to people in the public.

 

Valerie Khoo

So you're involved in the, conceptually, the actual story or the journey that the characters in the game potentially go on. Are you involved at that level? Are you involved in the development of the characters and stuff like that?

 

Esther Krogdahl

Sometimes. Yes. So mostly I play more of a project management type role and managing the team. But I have been a writer or a designer on different projects. And in those cases, usually I will write things like missions. So you know, a character's journey through the game or through different levels of the game. Sometimes just character dialogue that's used in the game and bios and such. So, you know, a little bit of world building or character building for the game.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Now, I'm fascinated by this. So were you a gamer? And you wanted to get into this field? Or did you stumble on it by accident and ended up being in games?

 

Esther Krogdahl

Yes. So I am a gamer. And I think that was definitely a driver. I was already writing my own books, and also gaming. And then I had this real light bulb moment. And I thought, well, why not try and combine those two? And that's what I did. And yeah, it's really been go from there. It's been fantastic. That's how I got into games, essentially. Because it's quite hard to break into that market. Even with software engineering experience. It's really its own thing because games are a real mixture of creative and art and design and engineering. So I was very lucky to get in.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yes, so you obviously enjoy writing because you said you were writing your own books and you've got Grumbelina now. What are the parallels or similarities between writing books and writing for games?

 

Esther Krogdahl 

Um… I mean, I guess the… Games are so vast in terms of their types. So quite often a game might have very little writing in it. And so that, you know, you can't compare that at all to writing a story. So I guess it's that world building and it's being able to kind of get the point across, or get, you know, the plot across or the characters feelings across in quite a short period of time, I guess. That's always challenging.

 

Valerie Khoo 

And do you have, when you that sometimes you've written missions for the characters, and the journey that they go on and stuff like that, how do you actually do that? Do you just dream it in your head? Or do you… Is it lengthy enough that you need to write it down? Because there's a, you know… I don't know very much about games myself. So, you know, is it something that's hefty enough that you do write essentially a little story for this character?

 

Esther Krogdahl 

Yeah, it really depends on the game. But generally, there's a lot of restrictions and parameters kind of already in place. So you're either using an existing kind of mission writing tool set, and that will come with, you know, a standard sort of length that you're aiming for. And, you know, some rewards that need to be to be found in that game or that mission or earned in that mission. So you're not sort of starting from nothing. You do have a bunch of kind of parameters and a very loose sort of script or starting and ending point, at least.

But everything in between is, if you're lucky, is completely up to you. But obviously, again, you know, the game characters are usually already defined. They have strong attributes and personalities. So you have to try and write with that in mind.

 

Valerie Khoo

Have you found it really satisfying and rewarding? In that, has it satisfied that… Obviously the creative urge that you have to write books, has it satisfied it to the same degree? Or is it kind of like a nice placeholder while you also pursue books, but you get to kind of do this fun thing with games on the side?

 

Esther Krogdahl

I think games are probably more satisfying.

 

Valerie Khoo

Oh, really! Tell me why!

 

Esther Krogdahl

Um, yeah, I think so. Because it's a collaboration, right? It's a group effort. It's something that brings a lot of different people together to create something. And then you, you know, you really get to experience it at the end. And even, and I think because so many people are involved, your experience of it in the end is like, you know, it's unique and you can still really enjoy that.

I find with my own personal writing, novels in particular, you're never quite happy with it. You know, it's a real sole effort. So you're always a lot more critical than you would be of other people's work. And because you're so embedded in it, and you're doing it end to end yourself, I don't think you kind of get that magic at the end of, oh, I'm done and I'm gonna read that whole thing and kind of be proud of it. You always sort of nit-picking a little bit, and relying on other people's impression of it more than your own to see how good it is.

 

Valerie Khoo 

How does one learn to write for games? Or write character arcs for games, do you think?

 

Esther Krogdahl 

I mean, you know, there's plenty of courses on that subject, but I am just self-taught. So I ended up offering writing services for games for free or for very little when I started getting into the industry. I was just doing it sort of freelance part time.

 

Valerie Khoo

You must have really wanted to get into it.

 

Esther Krogdahl

Yes, I was… So when I was on maternity leave with my daughter, I'm just one of these people that likes to be busy. And when you have a small baby that needs to nap constantly, and you've got to be at home, you know, I was just climbing the walls.

So I ended up really using that as a motivator to start looking into it and yeah, and getting into studios that way. But really, it was just trial and error.

 

Valerie Khoo

Yes.

 

Esther Krogdahl

And then once I was in some bigger studios, working alongside other designers, you know, I just learned a lot from them.

 

Valerie Khoo 

And did studios give it a go when you offered to write for free or low cost? What was the general response from studios?

 

Esther Krogdahl 

It was a bit of a sort of scattergun effect I went for when I was applying. So I applied to lots and lots of studios and heard very little back. But three or four studios were interested and took me on. Because the smallest studios generally cannot afford, you know, a full time or even a part time writer. It's generally you know, either an artist or a developer that picks up that role and is not necessarily particularly good at it or likes doing it. So yeah, they were happy to have me on board for that stuff.

 

Valerie Khoo 

So let's come back to Grumbelina. It is, as we've mentioned, a picture book, so it's short. But picture books are deceptively simple. A lot actually goes into a picture book. Well, more than people think. Just give us a bit of an idea of, you know, when you had this idea, how long did it then take you to write, and what you did then? Like, you know, lots of people have ideas, lots of people write their first draft, but they don't necessarily take the next step. So talk us through that journey.

 

Esther Krogdahl 

Yeah, sure. Um, I pretty much wrote Grumbelina in a weekend because it was just sort of a story that just wanted to come out of me. And I hadn't written any other children's stories before. But yeah, obviously I was very inspired by my daughter at that particular weekend, and I ended up just sitting down at a cafe and writing this story.

 

Valerie Khoo

Wow.

 

Esther Krogdahl

Yeah. And the first thing I did after that was I shared it with friends, and especially other parents of children of a similar age. So I was working in a studio in New Zealand at that stage. So I took it to work, I handed it around to a couple of different people, and said, oh, I'd love your feedback. And the feedback was generally pretty good. There was a few little tweaks here and there that I think I ended up implementing.

But after I got, you know, a lot of positive feedback from people, I thought, Okay, cool. This is something that people really like. And I started looking into what publishers were around in New Zealand, and what the submission process was.

So yeah, I got together a bit of a submission, which is not just the manuscript itself, but a little bit of a pitch, I guess, or an overview of the story and myself and kind of what I had to offer. And then I flicked that off.

And I think it was about six to nine months later, I received a call from Hachette from that submission.

 

Valerie Khoo

Wow.

 

Esther Krogdahl

Yeah, it took a while.

 

Valerie Khoo

So did you forget in the meantime? What did you do in the meantime?

 

Esther Krogdahl

Pretty much. Yeah, yeah, it's sort of like irons in the fire. You know, get irons in the fire and then pretty much just forget about them. And then if you get a call back then that's amazing. I was over the moon of course, and I still feel extremely lucky.

 

Valerie Khoo 

So when they called you was it, Oh, look, we might be interested? Or was it, We'd like to publish this?

 

Esther Krogdahl 

Might be interested, I guess. Yeah. So they wanted to know if the book was still available, or whether it'd been picked up elsewhere. And then when I said, no, it is available, we had a number of discussions over a number of weeks then about what that might look like. And they had a bunch of questions for me after that.

 

Valerie Khoo 

And so what's the grand master plan now? Continue to write for games or, you know, have a parallel career? What's the plan?

 

Esther Krogdahl 

The plan is to keep my day job, which, if I get to write for any of the games that I work on or design, that's a real bonus. But actually, my day job is more around project management and management of people than it is being creatively involved in games, these days. And certainly, that pays a little bit better.

And then, you know, as my side hustle, I guess, I would just love to keep writing. I'm writing some other children's stories and hope to continue to work with Hachette. And also, you know, I have some novels that I would like to work on as well, but they've taken a bit of a backseat these days.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Are they for children or for adults?

 

Esther Krogdahl

For adults. Yeah.

 

Valerie Khoo

Okay. Yeah, brilliant. Okay, wonderful. Well, congratulations on Grumbelina. And this is the point that I usually ask people their top three writing tips. And, you know, obviously, this is a picture book, but we so rarely get somebody who writes for games on the podcast. So I would really love to hear your top three writing tips for people who are interested in writing for games. What might they do?

 

Esther Krogdahl 

I'd say, number one would be you know, offer your services for free. As I said before, there's a lot of studios that really can't afford to pay a writer. And if you're offering your service for free, you get the chance to upskill yourself and actually get something on your resume. So don't be afraid to carve out some time to offer your time for free.

I'd say don't give up and hit as many, many studios and opportunities as you possibly can. Because you know, with any kind of writing submissions, you're going to be very lucky to get a call back. So don't give up and try as many opportunities as you can.

And a third, I'd probably say, don't do it for the money or the fame or… Yeah, it's quite often game writing jobs don't pay very well, but they're extremely rewarding. So keep that in mind as well.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Okay. They're great tips on how to get into the gaming industry and I love them. But I'm not going to let you off the hook just yet. Because what would be a couple of extra tips on the actual process of writing for games, you know, to improve those skills?

 

Esther Krogdahl 

Yeah. I think it's just trial and error. As I say that, you know, games are so broad. There's so many different types of games from simple, you know, hyper casual mobile games to real epic, open world games that you might write for, you know, a platform like PlayStation. So, there's just, there's so much to learn there. So really, you're going to learn best by doing. Don't be afraid to write sample scripts, for example. You know, make up your own game idea and write some scripts so that you can use that as examples if you're trying to submit somewhere. Ultimately you want to build on your resume, because that's what's going to give you a job.

 

Valerie Khoo 

Yeah, brilliant. All right. Grumbelina is out now. I think it's a gorgeous book. I think my partner thinks it's written about me. Or me at three. And thank you so much for your time today, Esther.

 

Esther Krogdahl

Thanks for having me.

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