Archives for posts with tag: Monkey Madness

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.

 

I was lucky enough to be invited to talk at the Penzance Literary Festival last weekend – and what a weekend! Not only was the atmosphere friendly, the audiences appreciative and the cakes extremely good, the sun shone and shone and shone and the sea was as warm as bathwater.

I love Penzance and the surrounding countryside, coastal paths and beaches, hence my choice of the area as the setting for my new novel for young teens, Summer’s Shadow. It was a privilege to be asked to speak about my inspiration for the book to an audience of girls from Cape Cornwall School in St Just (which is the best place for pasties in the county, if not the world, if you ever need to know).

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On Friday I talked to the girls about how keeping a diary has been an important part of my life as a writer since I could first string a couple of words together. I then went on to explain how Summer’s Shadow started as diary entries – mere scribbles in a Paperchase notebook which I took with me to the beach on holiday. I read extracts from the notebook and then read passages from the book to show how early, scratchy ideas had been honed and shaped into the final story. I explained that, once I knew I wanted to write a story from my notes, I began to write in the third person to distance myself from my own experiences. This was how I came up with the main character, Summer.

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Sometimes it helps to play around with voices and even tenses when you are at the early stages in writing, and a notebook is the perfect place to do this. Messing around in a notebook like this feels less ‘real’ than typing early ideas directly on to my laptop – it keeps me feeling free to experiment.

I finished the talk, had a quick chat with the girls and was about to pack up and leave when an elderly gentleman arrived, looking a bit lost. He asked if I was Anna Wilson and said he had very much wanted to hear my talk and that he had a present for me. I was rather puzzled as the talk had been for teens, but he was adamant it was me he wanted to see. He explained that he had heard I was going to be talking about keeping a diary and that he had self-published his own diary from his travels around Europe in 1952. He went on to tell me how he had met his wife after coming out of the army, and that he had fell in love immediately. He became quite tearful at this as, very sadly, his wife had passed away in 2010 after a long battle with Alzheimers. He told me how they had travelled on their bikes across post-war Europe, staying in youth hostels and living on very little money, but how utterly happy they had been. He then presented me with a copy of his published diary! I was very moved by this. The diary was not especially wonderfully written and it was obviously a very personal account, much of which would not be interesting to a reader who had never met the man. Yet, having heard him tell his story and sat with him as he remembered his beloved wife to whom he had been married for so long, it made me think about how all of us have a story to tell. Our lives are stories: whether we choose to pass them on to others or not is up to us.

I carried on the theme of diary-keeping when I gave my talk on Sunday about my book for younger readers, Monkey Madness. This talk was a lot less serious and featured, amongst other things, stories of elephants getting drunk on marula fruit, hippos pooing dangerously close to tents, and monkeys stealing cans of pop and throwing them at my children.

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My family and I went to Botswana in 2011 and, of course, I kept a diary. That diary formed the basis for Monkey Madness which I wrote a couple of years later. I read the audience extracts from that diary, as many of the things I had noted in it were actually stories that our driver, Bibi, had told us around the campfire. So, in many ways, I have Bibi to thank for his life stories, as without him I doubt I would have written Monkey Madness.

So, if there is one thing you do this summer holiday – keep a diary! You never know when it might come in useful in the future. It may be that one day you will write a book based on your thoughts and experiences. Or maybe you will keep it until you are old and grey and you meet a younger person with whom you can share your precious memories. Whatever you do, remember – you have your own story to tell, so get on and tell it!

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Animals and You magazine recently ran a competition for readers to win copies of my books Monkey Business and Monkey Madness. The entrants were asked to design their own ‘garden zoo’, because in Monkey Business, this is what Flo thinks she and Felix should do – for real! 

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The idea for this story came to me from my son when he was seven years old. He came out of school one day announcing that he was going to keep giraffes in the shed, elephants in the garage and ‘a couple of seals and crocodiles in the pond’. We cannot even fit our car in the garage because of the amount of junk in it, and our ‘pond’ is more of a puddle with ideas above its station. As for what would happen if you put seals and crocodiles in anywhere together, I dread to think! So I merely laughed and said, ‘What a lovely idea.’ 

I thought no more about my son’s vivid imagination until he came out of school the next day with two eager friends in tow, explaining that ‘Jamie says we can use his garden for the flamingoes and William says we can use his field for the zebras coz he’s going to tell his sister that the pony will have to go.’

I exchanged amused glances with the teacher who was listening in, and she said, ‘There’s a book in this somewhere . . .’

She was right – two books, in fact. It’s lovely to think that a make-believe game of my son’s has ended up inspiring readers to use their own imaginations. Here are some of the wonderfully creative entries for the drawing competition:

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From left to right the entrants were: Leila, who was the overall winner; Leisha Marie; Molly and Keira. Well done all of you, and thanks for entering!

 

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!