Archives for posts with tag: Anna Wilson

Most of the time, being a writer is a solitary job. I was going to say ‘lonely’, but that wouldn’t be true, as that implies that we writers feel sad, sitting alone at our desks all day. On the contrary: writing is what makes us very happy. It is true, though, that we are alone a lot of the time (unless you take into account the company of hundreds of made-up characters who romp around inside our heads!)

However, every once in a while we get to go out into the world and talk about our books. I have posted here before about going to festivals and schools and libraries. I love doing this as I like nothing better than to meet my readers face to face.

But today, I did something incredibly extra-special: I WENT ON THE TELLYBOX! Yes, I was on TV. I can hardly believe it actually happened now that I am back at my desk, typing this, but here is a photo to prove it:

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I was asked to appear on the ITV breakfast show Good Morning Britain to be interviewed by presenters Kate Garraway and Ben Shephard about Roald Dahl. Why? Firstly, because today is the day that the delumptious, scrumdiddlyumptious Dahl Dictionary is published by Oxford University Press. And secondly, because I MET ROALD DAHL WHEN I WAS TEN YEARS OLD!!

Which is why, in the photo above, you can see his autograph on a page of pink paper. (Sadly I have written his name again for him underneath his signature. Clearly I didn’t think much of his messy handwriting.)

As soon as I had agreed to do the interview, I started panicking. What should I say? Would I be nervous? What should I wear? Should I wear make-up? Mostly I just wanted to scream hysterically and jump up and down. Luckily my kids were at home and they kept me calm, told me not to wear anything with animal print on (tricky as most of my wardrobe has something animally in it) and took the mickey out of me to keep me sane.

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Roald Dahl means a lot to me, so I was thrilled to get the chance to go on telly to talk about him. I first came across his books when I was a member of The Puffin Club in the early 1980s and I started to collect all his stories. Not only did I read and re-read (and still do) his delumptious classic children’s tales such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and so on and so on, but I also went on to read his writing for older readers too. One of my favourites is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and other stories.

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This collection was published by Puffin Books as a ‘Puffin Plus’ title for older readers, long before the terms ‘Young Adult’ or ‘YA’ were coined. They were also the basis for a television programme I was an avid fan of called Tales of the Unexpected. In these stories, Dahl shows off the dark side of his writing far more than in any of the books for younger readers. Some of these ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ gave me nightmares, but I still wanted to read them and watch the TV adaptations!

One of the stories in the collection is not a horror story, it is actually the tale of how Dahl himself came to be published for the first time. It is called Lucky Break. In this tale, Dahl touches on his time at school which was a famously terrible time for him (if you want to know more, read his autobiography, Boy). He also gives some excellent top tips for writers as follows:

  1. You should have a lively imagination.
  2. You should be able to write well. By that I mean that you should be able to make a scene come alive in a reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift and you either have it or you don’t.
  3. You must have stamina. In other words you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up for hour after hour, day after day, week after week and month after month.
  4. You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.
  5. You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work, or tick you off if you start slacking.
  6. It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humour. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children it is vital.
  7. You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks his work is marvellous is heading for trouble.

These tips have stayed with me ever since the first time I read them when I was twelve years old. I paraphrase them and use them over and over again when I talk to people about writing.

The other thing that struck me was how inspirational it was for Dahl himself to have met his own favourite author. He was a big fan of C S Forester who wrote the historical Hornblower novels. It was when Dahl met Forester and told him about his own experiences of war as a WWII pilot, that Dahl’s own writing career started – this is the ‘lucky break’ of the title. Dahl says of meeting Forester:

‘What astonished me was that he looked so ordinary. There was nothing in the least unusual about him […] and yet here was a writer of stories who was famous the world over […] Tt was then I began to realise for the first time that there are two distinct sides to a writer of fiction. First, there is the side he displays to the public, that of an ordinary person like anyone else, a person who does ordinary things and speaks in an ordinary language. Second, there is the secret side which comes out in him only after he has closed the door of his workroom and is completely alone. It is then that he slips into another world altogether, a world where his imagination takes over and he finds himself actually living in the places he is writing about at that moment.’

When I finally got to meet Roald Dahl, I had that exact same feeling that Dahl himself had had when he shook the hand of C S Forester.

WOW, I thought. I want to be like that. I want to become a person who has a secret, magic life, writing stories.

And, guess what? Reader, I did!

So, this summer, get out to your local libraries, book festivals and bookshops, and bury yourself in stories. You never know where they might take you. Who knows, one day you might meet your literary hero and be inspired to write something yourself . . .

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

 

Cake OffIt’s that time of year again: Wednesday nights are sacrosanct for the next few weeks as we huddle round the TV to watch another set of hopeful bakers as they subject themselves to the steely-eyed scrutiny of Paul Hollywood and the softer touch of Mary Berry. Yes, it’s BAKE-OFF time!

I have adored this programme since it first started. For me, as I am sure for a lot of people, it conjures up a nostalgia for the days of baking with Grandma on a wet afternoon. My grandmother was a great baker – not in the sense of being able to produce astonishingly complex cakes with Show-Stopper appeal, but boy did she make a lip-smacking Bakewell Tart!  It was from her that I learnt that cold hands, as well as being an indicator of a warm heart, make the best pastry you could wish for. Grandma had both: her pastry was legendary and her kindness and love extended to letting me redecorate her kitchen with splatters and crumbs while I learnt to bake alongside her. My jam tarts invariably came out of the oven “over-baked” as Paul Hollywood would say, and the pastry looked a little grey after my grubby fingers had probed and prodded at it, but Grandma never failed to encourage me to try, try again until I got it right.

As a consequence I have learnt to bake cakes, scones, quiches, tarts, bread and puddings and I am more than happy to hand the kitchen over to my own kids who adore a good Bake Off: so much so, that my son asked if he could have a Bake Off Birthday Party this year! It was around the time that I was writing The Great Kitten Cake Off, and so I actively encouraged him, thinking (in that mean way that writers do) that the experience might give me some good material for my story.

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As it happens, my son’s party went without a hitch, as you can see from the pictures above. The most amazingly inventive and delicious “penguin igloo cakes” were made and my son and his friends did all the washing up!

So much for the writing material . . .

Happily, my cats had already given me a few ideas for a plot. They are both incredibly greedy and are constantly on the lookout for an opportunity to steal food from the kitchen when my back is turned. They have been known to jump up and lick cake mix out of the bowl, eat butter straight from the dish and polish off icing left over from a cupcake-baking session. Their worst offence, however, occurred last Christmas Eve when they discovered the newly bought turkey and pulled it out of its plastic wrapping, devouring a hole the size of a man’s fist from it before they were caught. Yes, raw turkey. They really will eat anything.

IMG_1401So, what with my love of baking and The Great British Bake Off, along with my naughty, food-thieving cats, it wasn’t going to be long before I thought up a story which would bring the two things together. And so, ladies and gentlemen, I bring you The Great Kitten Cake Off, published today! I hope you enjoy following the antics of Ellie Haines and her crazy family as they go through the highs and lows of preparing for a charity performance of “The Junior Cake Off”. Meet Pete Jollyspoon and Milly Barry, the judges, and Sam and Sid, the cheeky presenters with a bad line in cake-based puns. And look out for naughty Kitkat, the black and white kitten who is most definitely “the cat who got the cream” . . .

I have recently finished the excellent book Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose (appropriately enough!) It shows how reading closely can inform and improve your own writing. This is something I have always known instinctively, but Prose’s book takes you stage by stage through different aspects of writing, such as how to write good dialogue, how to develop character, how to describe gestures to a reader and so on.

I think I have perhaps subconsciously always been taking lessons learned from other writers and trying to apply them to my own work. I am certainly constantly telling students, ‘You cannot be a writer unless you are a reader first and foremost’. When I was younger and dreaming of being published, I would keep a ‘quotes’ book where I would copy out my favourite passages from books as I read them.

In writing Summer’s Shadow, I was definitely directly influenced by many great writers. I was recently asked to come up with a list of favourite books which informed my own story, and this is the list I chose.

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

I read this haunting story after visiting Cornwall for the first time. I had just been to stay in the house which provided the inspiration for Summer’s Shadow – a house which belongs to my husband’s family. I loved the place so much, my husband said, ‘You have to read Rebecca – it’s almost as if it were written about my family’s house.’ He was right! The setting of the Manderley estate, and in particular the description of the drive, complete with hydrangeas lining the way, could have been written about my husband’s family’s home. The narrator is a girl cast adrift, alone and scared, too – rather like Summer in my story. It is a book written for adults, but fans of YA fiction will love it.

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

This is another story of a girl, left alone for much of the time in a strange, tumbledown house. Her family are chaotic, her father is a writer and her step-mother is a painter. It is the kind of story that makes me yearn to meet the characters in real life and to be part of their bohemian world. It is a lighter read than Rebecca, but still there is much about this story that enchanted me and fed into the writing in my own book. Any keen reader of family sagas will be as captivated as I was by this story.

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

I have read and re-read this book so many times, to myself and also to my children. As a consequence it probably had more influence on Summer’s Shadow than any other book I have readMary Lennox, the main character, is rather like Summer although she is only ten. Mary, too, is orphaned and is very resentful that she has been sent from India where she had been brought up, to live with her cantankerous uncle in a rambling house in England. She meets a boy called Dickon who helps her out of her misery with his friendship and his gift to her of a love of nature. I certainly had him in mind when I created Zach. I would recommend this book to young teens, for although the main characters are young, the language and plot of this book is rich enough to hold a young teenager’s interest.

Moondial – Helen Cresswell

I adored Helen Cresswell’s books when I was a child. I was a member of the Puffin Club, and Cresswell’s books were always on the recommended reading lists that the club sent out. I read Moondial, however, as a parent, because my daughter picked it up in a bookshop one day and asked me to buy it for her. It concerns a girl whose mother is in a coma after a terrible accident. The girl has to go and live with a relative she does not know very well while her mother is in hospital, and during her stay she has some ghostly experiences which teach her a lot about herself and her family. I drew on this when I was thinking about the ghostly passages in Summer’s Shadow.

Tom’s Midnight Garden – Philippa Pearce

This ranks alongside The Secret Garden as one of my all-time favourite children’s classics. When Tom’s brother falls ill with measles, Tom is sent to stay with his aunt and uncle. (You can see how useful aunts and uncles are in fiction when you want to get your main character away from their normal life!) Tom has been told that he may be infectious so he is not allowed out to play with other children. He feels lonely and restless and cannot sleep. One night he hears the clock in the hall strike thirteen instead of midnight. He gets up to investigate and discovers that the house has changed and that there is a beautiful sunlit garden that was not there before. This story about families and time travel has stayed with me over the years and had a strong influence on me when I was thinking about the Cornish standing stones and the links with the past in my own story.

Notes on an Exhibition – Patrick Gale

This is a book for adults, but again, YA fans and older teens will love it. It is set in the exact same area of Cornwall that I have written about in Summer’s Shadow. Gale’s writing is stunning. His descriptions of the sea and the light in that part of the world outstrip anything I have read – you can taste the salt in the air and smell the sea through his words. The plot is complex and compelling: it concerns a painter who suffers from mental health problems. She is consequently a difficult character, but is redeemed by her marriage to an intensely lovable man. There is tragedy and heartbreak and incredible beauty in this book. It will sweep you away. I would not recommend it to younger readers though, as the book most definitely contains ‘adult themes’. If you are a younger reader, you will just have to wait – but it will be worth it!

Summers Shadow

This is my first ever novel for young teens. I am more than a little bit excited, mixed with more than a little bit nervous about this. Up until now people have pretty much known what to expect from my books: funny stories about children and their pets, families, friends and enemies. Summer’s Shadow is a huge departure from this.

The story starts with Summer’s mother in hospital, fighting for her life. Things go downhill from there for Summer as she finds herself ripped from her old life and catapulted into a new one with relatives who don’t seem to want her. Her uncle Tristan is distracted and will not answer questions in a straightforward way, her cousin Kenan would rather she did not exist, and her aunt Becca has disappeared altogether.

As Summer comes to terms with her new life, she has many experiences, some of them good (mostly in the shape of a boy called Zach whom she meets on the beach); some of them most unsettling. After one unnerving occasion too many, Summer comes to believe that the house may be haunted. But the reader has to work out whether Summer is haunted by real ghosts, or by the shadows of her own family’s past . . .

The inspiration for this story came from a place which is very precious to me and my family. It is a beach in Cornwall where we spend every summer holiday. The house we stay in belongs to my husband’s relatives and has been in his family for generations. It is a romantic setting, far from normal life, at the very tip of West Cornwall. We have no mobile signal and, until recently, there was no WiFi. We see seals, dolphins and even whales while we are down there, we swim in the cold, cold sea (no wetsuits allowed!) and we walk along the craggy coastal path, drinking in the scenery.

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For years I had written about the place in diaries, trying to capture its essence and what it means to me, but it wasn’t until my grandmother died and I was truly bereft for the first time in my life that I felt I had the beginnings of a story. Suddenly I was writing from the point of view of a grieving girl. The scene that really kicked things off for me is a passage towards the end of the book, where Kenan challenges Summer to a dangerous swim across the bay. I knew once I had written that scene that I had two good, strong characters and the makings of a plot.

So Summer’s Shadow is a sad book, but it is also, I think, a story with hope and a happy ending of sorts. It is the kind of story I loved reading when I was a young teen. I am hoping it will be well received by today’s teenagers as I would very much like to have another book published for this age group soon!

Summer’s Shadow is published by Macmillan Children’s Books on 3rd July. If you live in or near Bath, do come along to the launch party at Toppings Booksellers on Tuesday 8th July at 7.30pm.

 

 

The last two weeks have been taken up with school visits for World Book Day. I would have needed a Tardis to get around all the schools in one day though, so instead the day became World Book Fortnight. (I would be very happy to use the Tardis next time, so if you are reading this Doctor, do bear that in mind for next year.)

I love going into schools as I get all the fun of being a teacher without any of the trials and tribulations. It must be how grandparents feel about looking after their grandchildren: I can muck about, make silly jokes, get the children rolling in the aisles and hyped up . . .

No, of course I make them do some work as well. For example, at West Town Lane Academy in Bristol last week I led a workshop with the Year 4s on how to build a story starting with only TWO WORDS. Yes, it is possible, as these incredibly enthusiastic children showed. They went back to class with the beginnings of a story which they promised they would write out in full for their teachers.

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West Town Lane’s theme for the day was ‘Bedtime Stories’, so everyone, even the teachers, had come to school in their pyjamas! I felt as though I was in a reverse nightmare, as I was the only one in the school hall in my normal clothes. I told the children that usually a writer can spend all day in their pyjamas if they want to, but that for World Book Day I had to get dressed – only to find that all the children had stayed in their PJs, so I was the odd one out. (Mind you, the headmaster was not wearing his PJs, I noticed . . .)

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At Bathwick St Mary’s in Bath the children had dressed up as their favourite book character. I talked to them about how I became a writer, what my favourite books were as a child and where I get my ideas from now for my animal books. They shared stories about their own pets and I encouraged them to go and write them all down after the talk.

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At Oldfield Park Infant School, also in Bath, I showed the children my first ever diary where put down my first attempts at story writing.  We talked about how stories can be made using pictures instead of or as well as words. We also discussed keeping a diary or an ‘ideas journal’ where you can write what you like without worrying about spelling and punctuation and just have fun with words and pictures. All writers have a notebook or a space where they start their ideas: this is not something they show to anyone else, so it doesn’t matter if there are mistakes in it.

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At King Edward’s Junior School in Bath the children had dressed up as their favourite nursery rhyme characters and the teachers had made a huge effort as well. One teacher came as Old Macdonald and even had a very life-like plastic pig with him! I did not dress up, but I did more than my fair share of animal impersonations as I talked about my pets and how they have inspired me to write.

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At Westonbirt Prep in Gloucestershire the children had read my book ‘Monkey Business’ before my visit. I told them about the real life stories behind the book and how I got the ideas for the follow up, ‘Monkey Madness’ which was published this January.

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If you would like to me come and visit your school to give a talk or lead a workshop, please get in touch with Authors Aloud at info@authorsaloud.co.uk. I would love to visit secondary schools to talk about reading and writing too: I have a new book coming out in July for Years 7-9 called ‘Summer’s Shadow’ which I will blog about soon.

I am free to do visits all year round, not just during World Book Day . . .Week . . . Fortnight!