How to Become a Writer: Andy Griffiths

This series is based on an early short-story by Lorrie Moore called ‘How to Become a Writer’, a wry account of all the seemingly random events, choices and missteps that led a young woman to dedicate herself to a life of putting words on paper. This is a subject I’m fascinated by. Whenever I talk to authors, read their interviews or hear them speak, I’m struck by the enormous variety of routes there are to the same end-point.

There are those who come to writing through study, others are self-taught; some begin early while others are ‘late-bloomers’; some are lucky enough to find mentors, others go it alone; some begin as teachers, editors or in other word-related professions, others come from lives as accountants or sheep shearers. I take tremendous comfort in knowing there’s more than one way to pack a sack; that just because you haven’t done certain things (like gone to university), doesn’t mean you can’t become a writer; we must each find our own path to the writing life.

Andy Griffiths is one of Australia’s most popular children’s authors. Best known for the Treehouse series, the JUST! books and The Day My Bum Went Psycho, over the last 20 years Andy’s books have been New York Times bestsellers, adapted for the stage and television and won more than 50 Australian children’s choice awards. Andy, a passionate advocate for literacy, is an ambassador for The Indigenous Literacy Foundation and The Pyjama Foundation.

I first met Andy when we spoke on a panel at Perth Writers Festival about the super-crazy Twitter novella we had both contributed to, along with 38 other writers, performed live on stage to much laughter and bemusement. 

Teaching students to write

I became a high school English teacher in 1988 and for the next three years dedicated myself to finding short, fun ways to trick my students into enjoying writing, reading and their own creativity. Two of my most successful ruses were to invite them to make small 12-page pocket books in which they were only allowed to write one sentence and draw one picture per page on any topic of their choosing, no matter how silly or outlandish. Another was inviting them to put unusual objects in jars and then compose and create front and back labels for them. These activities seemed more like play and problem-solving to them and any student could easily enjoy and succeed at the tasks, often unaware they were even writing. I would also get them to write down a story from their lives in no more than a couple of paragraphs along with an illustration and then I would collate them and publish them as a class book for everybody to enjoy.

Studying Writing & Editing

I began self-publishing collections of my own writing along similar lines and at the end of three years I took leave without pay and headed back to Melbourne to live on $10,000 dollars I’d saved while teaching. Living very simply and frugally this bought me two years of full-time writing practise in which I undertook a graduate diploma of fiction writing and editing.

Writing a Non-Fiction Book

During this time I met an educational publisher who liked my stories and asked if I could put together a book encouraging creative writing in the classroom. I used the examples above and many more—along with my own pieces of writing as examples and it was published in 1993 as ‘Swinging on the Clothesline’. (This book has now been updated, revised and published as ‘Once upon a Slime: 45 fun ways to get writing fast’). The publisher decided to employ Terry Denton, a freelance illustrator, to illustrate the text because they figured he had a similar sense of humour. They were absolutely right and we have worked very happily together ever since!

Testing Ideas on Kids

To help promote the book I presented a workshop at an Australian English Teachers’ conference workshop where I invited teachers to experience the methods of the books by making their own little books and jar labels. This led to invitations to come to their schools to present to their students and do the workshops with them.

One of the most valuable things about working so intensively in schools during these early years was that it provided an amazing opportunity to research what interested kids and, specifically, what made them laugh. A group that you are speaking to provides an ideal opportunity to try out pieces of your writing and see if they hold the interest of the group. If they do, great—if not, then back to the drawing board/writing desk and try again next week. It took some of the guesswork out of the equation and helped me to put my first trade publication, Just Tricking (1997) on a very solid footing.

Encouragement from a Fellow Author

Terry Denton encouraged me to move from educational publishing to trade publishing. This was difficult for me as my sense of humour was pretty left of centre and the publishers at that stage didn’t really understand it or see its potential appeal to a child audience. This may also have been because I was still learning to write and learning to control the humour. Terry—who was an established author-illustrator at that point, generously offered for me to tell publishers that he would illustrate whatever I did. This meant, that from a publisher’s point of view, I was a slightly more marketable proposition.

Interest from a Publisher

As I toured schools and engaged with audiences I noticed they loved one of my small self-published books, Just Tricking. It was a bogus practical joke book that contained nine surreal/irresponsible/insane practical jokes that couldn’t really be played but were written in the voice of a master practical joker telling the reader how to do them. Each of the jokes was only a paragraph long so I expanded my nine-joke version into a 200 joke version. I would read from this in my school presentations and also use it in presentations to librarians and teachers at various English teaching conferences. As a result of this I was approached by a publisher who loved the humour but didn’t want to publish such an odd, unclassifiable sort of book. I suggested that perhaps I could expand some of the jokes into longer stories by creating a narrator who styled himself as the world’s greatest practical joker who would play one of the jokes on a friend, parent or teacher and have it go completely wrong.

Experimenting and Rewriting

It took me two years of endless experimenting and rewriting to find the right narrative voice that made the stories come alive. At first I used third person narration but this felt too distant. I tried second person which had its advantages but ultimately made it sound too much like a choose your own adventure book. Then I tried first person narration which felt much better, but it didn’t fall into place until I called the narrator Andy and narrated the stories as things that had actually happened to me. In this way the stories themselves were practical jokes—using a believable tone to convey completely ridiculous stories. This fictional-autobiographical style felt good because it mirrored the exact I liked to tell stories to children (eg. You’ll never guess what happened to me in the bath this morning: I was attacked by a shark!). Each of the short stories was complete in itself but linked by the same narrator and same

Taking a Risk

In some ways it was risky because it was so different to any of the other books being published at the time, but I really wanted to create a book that would stand out—in either a good or bad way. I was aware this was a really important chance and I didn’t want to play it too safe. To that end I asked Terry not to illustrate the book in a conventional way but to follow the ‘tricking’ theme and just fill the margins with stream-of-conciousness silliness as well as a flick pictures on the bottom corners. I wanted my readers to pick the book up out of curiosity and to be able to play with the book—I figured this would make them more likely to check out the stories. I put a LOT of work into all the stories but especially the openings. From my experience observing kids in the library when I was an English I did not assume they were just going to read the story—I assumed they probably didn’t want to read at all and it was my job to intrigue and interest them in whatever way or ways I could.

Using an Agent to Negotiate a Contract

The publisher was happy with it all and gave me a contract which I then took to an agent who negotiated the terms with the publisher on my behalf. (Business negotiation is not one of my skills.) The book was published in April 1997—almost ten years after I’d set out to become a writer—and (I think!) because of the long development it was an immediate hit.

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