Last Monday I had the honour of being asked to host a Twitter Q&A for the fabulous Golden Egg Academy: “a team of experienced children’s publishing and creative writing professionals providing inspiration, industry-led direction and networking opportunities to talented writers for children”.

I passed a fast and furious half hour, answering questions about editing and structure (with a few curve balls!). It was tough, coming up with answers quickly and fitting them into 140 characters, but that’s just the kind of challenge to which I rise: writing to length.

The reason for such nerdishness is possibly because I was an editor of children’s books in a former life. Nowadays I spend most of my time writing my own books. However, I also teach part-time on the Bath Spa Creative Writing courses (both BA and MA) where I get to bang on endlessly about the merits of self-editing and taking advice from experienced editors.

So basically, I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to editing and structure.

Since doing the Q&A, people have suggested that I write a blogpost about some of the questions that were raised. I have therefore chosen my top ten from the questions asked last week (my favourite being the rather cheeky one at number 10). Here goes:

1.I am editing my story for middle-grade readers. Any tips?

Be firm with yourself. When you are in the throes of re-writing or editing your own work, you KNOW deep down when something isn’t working. Be prepared to cut and slash away at those bits which niggle. But don’t bury them just yet – keep them in a file marked ‘Murdered Darlings’ or, for the more security-concious amongst you, ‘Stuff’. You never know when those hacked off bits might come in useful in a future burst of creativity

2. Any tips on over-editing? I am currently worried I am cutting too much and making it worse, not better.

See above! You can never over-edit, unless you have rashly chucked away your previous drafts. In any case, I think it is usually a case of ‘if in doubt, cut it out’, so over-editing is never a problem for me. I over-write to begin with, so I love a bit of over-editing to sort out the wood from the trees.

3. How long do you spend editing?

That very much depends on the length and complexity of the book, not to mention the deadline. A first ‘edit’ is more like a structural re-write and that can take from weeks to months. A final line-edit is more of a tidy-up and takes a matter of days. But unless a deadline is imposed from above, I wouldn’t set a time limit on it, as it’s all about getting into the best shape possible, no matter how long it takes.

4. Do you think you become less emotional about your writing over time?

No! I still bristle when I get a list of editorial points from my publisher. I have learnt to read it through while I mutter to myself, then put it to one side for a few hours (or days, if time is not of the essence). I feel calmer then, and more open to my editor’s suggestions, which are pretty much always (infuriatingly!) correct . . .

5. What helped you most with improving the quality of your writing when you were trying to break through?

Listening to advice from my agent and editor. I started out writing short stories and picture books and learnt an incredible amount about structure from that. Also I read A LOT. Reading good, well edited work continues to teach me pretty much all I need to know.

6. How did you manage to get an authentic voice for an eight-year-old boy protagonist?

This is, strictly speaking, not an editing question (it referred to my Monkey Business and Monkey Madness titles). However, I often get asked about ‘voice’. How do you achieve it? Where does it come from? The answer is LISTEN to the sort of people you want to mimic and then do just that. Make notes – on the bus, in a cafe, once you have done the school run . . I listened to my son and his friends and copied everything they said! And then edited it to make it less rambling and bonkers!

7. How do you plot?

Erm, I don’t. Not before I start writing anyway. I don’t sit down and work out a plan and then write the book, chapter by chapter. I have to get the voice first. Once I have that, I write a couple of scenes which are bugging me. After this I feel I have a sense of the story, so I start to plot, thinking about character arc, scene development and where the reveal should come. John Yorke’s fabulous book on structure, Into the Woods, has helped enormously in recent times.

8. How do you plan an ending before you have got there?

Again, I don’t! I rarely know how a story is going to end when I first start writing, and even if I think I do, it changes once I am into the business of getting the bones down. Don’t feel hampered by this. Start writing the way it feels most natural for you to start. Set yourself a daily limit: 100, 1000, 1500 words. Whatever. JUST DO IT.

9. What is the biggest change between being an editor now and 15 years ago?

I have not worked commercially as an editor for about five years now, so I am a little bit out of the loop as far as in-house editing goes. But I would say, from where I am sitting as an author, that the whole business is a lot more sales focused now. There is little time to develop a story in house from a basic first concept: authors need to have done a pretty clean first draft before any editorial conversations begin. Personally I think that is a bit of a shame, as some of the best books I worked on in house started off as little more than a chat over coffee and were true collaborations between the editor and the writer/illustrator. I think that kind of relationship is rare these days.

10. I see you studied medieval languages – did that ever come in useful for your writing?

OK, this is the curve ball! I did indeed study medieval languages: French and German to be precise. I also studied 18th and 19th century French and German. Of course it has not impacted directly on my writing for English-speaking middle-grade readers! But I did learn an awful lot about story-telling, characterisation, cultural differences in these things, the structure of language, grammar, expression . . . all those ingredients have added flavour to my appreciation, and thus, I hope, my creation, of my own stories.

If you want to follow these fab Golden Academy Q&As which are hosted by published authors, follow #GEAQA on Twitter every Monday night from 7.30pm.

 

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It is National Poetry Day today, and I have spent most of it thinking of my dad who loved a good poem. (He loved quite a few bad ones, too, but let’s not dwell on that.)

I realised, rather late in the day, that my dad was probably my main inspiration when it came to deciding to give it a go as a writer. When I was a child, he was the one who would read the bedtime stories (doing ALL the voices – no one else does Gollum like he did). He also helped long car journeys whizz by with renditions of songs and poems to which my sister and I soon learned all the words so that we could join in (much to the annoyance, no doubt, of anyone else in the car at the time).

He was a true wordsmith: a man who loved language in all its shapes and forms and who liked nothing better than the challenge of composing a limerick at the drop of a hat for someone’s birthday or simply to commemorate a good evening with friends. And he LOVED nonsense. In fact, towards the end of his life, it became clear that seeing the absurd in life was what got him through the tough times.

One of my fondest memories of Dad is when he would recite the little ditty below, written by Samuel Foote in the late 18th century. Foote wrote it as a joke for the benefit of an actor, Charles Macklin, who is said to have boasted that he could recite anything by heart after reading it only once. Foote promptly wrote this piece and packed it with made-up words in the hope that he could trip Macklin up. Dad used to recite it regularly when we were kids, and I can still hear him now saying the last line, with particular emphasis, both vocal and facial, on the word ‘heeeeeeels’!

So, this is for you, Dad. With thanks for the love of poetry and language that you passed on to me. Happy National Poetry Day.

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So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie;

and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop.

“What! No soap?”

So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber;

and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies

and the grand Panjandrum himself,

with the little round button at top,

and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can

till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

As I type, the Bath Children’s Literature Festival is in full swing – the only festival of its kind in the country. It is always an honour to be asked to participate, so when the opportunity arose, I said YES immediately. I then promptly panicked, as I had been asked to provide an ‘Alice in Wonderland storytelling event’. So . . . nothing to do with my own books.

What had I been thinking? Was I MAD?

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Um, yes.

Ah well, in for a penny, in for a hat costing ten shillings and sixpence (or £4 on EBay) . . . I decided to go for it and dress as the Mad Hatter to tell Alice’s adventures from his point of view.

As the Cheshire Cat says, ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad. You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.’ That seemed to just about sum it all up.

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The Cheshire Cat giving me advice. Mainly on how bad my Cheshire accent was.

And so I took my audience on a trip to Wonderland, drinking strange potions and eating magic cakes, growing and shrinking, swimming in our own tears, running a Caucus Race to dry off, meeting a (dubiously) zen Caterpillar and eating a magic mushroom – all with the strict proviso that none of these things should be tried at home.

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The White Rabbit made an appearance. He did a photo call, but no autographs.

My audiences were very obliging and joined in with everything, including an enthusiastic ‘Off with his head!’ at the end.

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The best way to explain a Caucus Race is to do one.

I hope that comment did not reflect the audiences’ opinion of the show. At any rate, they were not as judgmental as the Queen in Wonderland, who famously declared: ‘Sentence first–verdict afterwards!’

The new term is well underway: homework is piling up for my kids and deadlines are piling up for me; schools are getting in touch to book in visits; students are emailing me to chase marks and reports on assignments. In short, the summer is over and it’s Back to Life, Back to Reality.

I had a funny summer. Things had happened which had forced me to take a break from writing. I was, frankly, beginning to worry that I would never be able to find the focus to write again.

But the thing about being forced to take a break is that often the mind uses that time to mull things over. As the wise philosopher, Winnie-the-Pooh says:

“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

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This is what I did for a large chunk of the summer. I sat and stared out to sea. I sat and gazed downstream and let my mind drift along with the current. I climbed a cliff and let my eyes follow the line of the horizon until my vision blurred and I wasn’t really seeing anything any more. I let my thoughts meander through meadows and linger in leafy lanes.

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It turns out Pooh is right about this too:

“Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do it go where they can find you.”

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In taking time out, and letting go of the panicky feeling of writer’s block, I seem to have freed up a bit of space in my head. I am now writing again. It is a fantastic feeling, to be itching to get to my keyboard every day, to be desperate to scribble down the next idea or snatch of dialogue.

But I have learnt something this summer: that there really is a value beyond measure in Doing Nothing. And so I intend to find space for that – even for a few moments – every day from now on. I hope you can too.

Happy new term, everyone. And happy dreaming!

Last year I was driving through my local town, Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, and I spotted two banners hanging on the town bridge. One was advertising a music festival and one a festival for the arts. It got me thinking: why don’t we have a book festival for kids too? It was a fleeting idea, but it soon grew into a Very Big Real Thing. I just wasn’t sure, initially, if it was something I could pull off . . .

I mentioned this to a couple of children’s authors I know who live in or near Bradford-on-Avon, and they agreed we should start our own festival. We had a meeting in a cafe (always the best place to have meetings, I have found) and began firing questions into the air and scribbling in our notepads. The most important question was:

“Where should we hold the festival?”

It was when my friend and fellow author, Fleur Hitchcock, came up with the idea of involving our local library, that everything came together. Bradford-on-Avon library is a hive of activity. It is slap bang in the middle of the town and hosts a cornucopia of activities and events year-round.

And once a year the library runs the Summer Reading Challenge for children. Librarians go into schools and give assemblies to explain what the Challenge is all about. Then children come in with their parents or guardians to sign up and pledge to read six books over the holidays. They come in and out of the library throughout the summer to tell the librarians and volunteers about the stories they have read. It’s a great way to foster a love of reading and to use the library as a hub for the community.

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So once we knew we wanted our festival to be in the library, everything else fell into place. We called ourselves The Bradford-on-Avon Mini Book Festival (or BOAMBF for short). We had activities on the go while children came in to sign up for the Summer Reading Challenge on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th July. This meant we had a captive audience and it also meant we could inspire the children to write their own stories over the summer period as well as read other people’s.IMG_1452

Maudie Smith took a group of children to the seaside and told them the story of Millie and the Mermaids

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Cate Shearwater led a bunch of gymnasts through a fantastic gymnastic routine and read to them from her Somersaults and Dreams series.

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Angie Morgan showed children how to make ENORmouses (or is that enormice?) and read to them from her ENORMouse book and her Shouty Arthur series.

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Jeremy Strong had a packed room full of children hanging on his every word as he told them of his long career in children’s books (he has written over ONE HUNDRED books for kids!)

Alex Campbell held a “writing surgery” for teens and young adults who are keen writers and wanted tips on how to improve their work.

Fleur Hitchcock and Ian McKay showed us all how to make a model village from cardboard boxes and scraps of paper and material.

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Gary Parker, creator of top series “Millie in Between” on CBBC, talked to us about his experiences writing children’s drama series for the BBC.

And I ran a workshop on writing stories about “Animals in Funny Places” and also one on “How to Build a Story” with Fleur.

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It was an action-packed, glitter-filled, noisy, happy day. And the best thing about it was the stories that came from the kids themselves. Running the workshops was a little like putting on the festival itself: each workshop started with a small idea, but by the end we all had some cartoons, pictures, stories or pieces of artwork that were Very Big Real Things in their own right.

So if you have a tiny idea and you’re not sure if you can make it work, give it a go! You just never know what might happen . . .

To find out more about BOAMBF go to https://boambf.wordpress.com/about/

Today is a Sort-of Book Birthday. Why sort-of? Well, because the content of these books is not entirely new, but the COVERS are! Which means I get to feel all excited about my babies having a make-over and being unleashed on the world all over again.

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I wrote The Puppy Plan nearly ten years ago. It was originally called Puppy Love. It took a while to get it right, as it was my first novel for children. Up until then I had written short chapter books, picture books and short stories. It was quite something to realise that I could write a longer book. It was inspired by my children who were 6 and 4 at the time, and our new puppy, Kenna.

Kenna, our lovely Lab.

Kenna, our lovely Lab.

I had never had a dog before, although I would have loved one as a child, and it was a bit of a shock to realise how much work it was, training and looking after a tiny puppy. I spent the first month of dog-ownership under house arrest with Kenna as she was not allowed to go for long walks and needed to pee ALL the time! So I sat in our kitchen, writing notes on an idea for a book about a girl and a dog – in between taking Kenna out into the garden and teaching her how to pee OUTside and how to sit, stay, lie down, etc.

During those days and days of training, I started to notice Kenna’s facial expressions and body language when I spoke to her. She sometimes put her head on one side as if she knew exactly what I was saying. Much of the time it looked to me as though she was thinking hard about everything I said. At other times she looked completely baffled as if to say, ‘You are crazy, you humans!’

As my new story developed, I realised I needed to give the dog character, Honey, her own voice in the narrative, and so I came up with the idea of Honey commenting on the action. I didn’t want her to be able to communicate with her owner as I needed her to be a real dog – I didn’t want to inject any fantasy elements into the story. Having her commenting on the action in the sidelines seemed the best way to do it.

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Ten years on, I am proud to see these books are still being enjoyed by readers everywhere. I get lovely letters every month from people who have only just come across them for the first time. So it is great to see them get a makeover with these fab new covers. Many thanks to Matt Hunt for his beautiful illustrations and to my publishers, Macmillan Children’s Books, for designing them so wonderfully well.

Happy Sort-of Book Birthday, Honey and Summer Holly Love!

www.annawilson.co.uk

Earlier this year I was delighted to be contacted by St John and St Vigor School in Chilcompton in Somerset and asked if I would be their Patron of Reading. Of course I immediately said “Yes!” as one of the best things about my job is that I get to go into schools to encourage children to read and write. The Patron of Reading scheme ensures that an author will not visit the school just once, but will form a special friendship with the teachers and pupils, keeping in regular contact and helping the children with all areas of their literacy, from one-to-one reading to judging writing competitions to getting involved in class projects. I loved the idea of getting to know a school in this way, especially one that is close to where I live, as this means I will be able to visit once a term and keep in touch easily.

My first visit was during World Book Week. (That is why I look so tired in the photo, as I had lots of school visits that week!) I met the whole school, including the Reception and Year 1 classes, and talked to them about my books, told then about how old I was when I started writing, what inspired me and where I get my ideas from. I was asked some excellent questions that the children had thought up in advance including, “Which book best represents you?” and “How do you get your ideas on to the page?” both of which were very tricky questions to answer…

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I agreed with the staff that I would visit again in June and run writing workshops with the children. We also discussed how I might Skype them to discuss class projects or so that the children could show me work they had done.

The role of Patron of Reading was thought up by a head teacher in Wales who was very impressed by the impact that an author visit had had on his pupils. He saw that the children were inspired by meeting ‘a real author’ and that they saw that reading and writing could lead to exciting opportunities later in life and were not simply things they had to learn at school.

As it says on the Patron of Reading website:

“A few years ago, Tim Redgrave, the current headteacher at Ysgol Esgob Morgan in St Asaph, Denbighshire, took his Year Six class to St Asaph Library to hear Helena Pielichaty give a talk as part of Denbighshire Libraries Book Week. Tim never forgot the impact that the visit had on his pupils, and sometime later he emailed Helena about an idea he’d had for promoting and nurturing a love of reading. He asked her if she would be the first Patron of Reading and she jumped at the opportunity. The idea was extremely successful, and was quickly adopted by other schools around the United Kingdom.”

If you would like to find out more about The Patron of Reading scheme, take a look at the website here: http://www.patronofreading.co.uk or follow the scheme on Twitter at @patronofreading

I will be posting more news from St John and St Vigor after my next visit next term.