A chat with Valerie Wilding, WP writer
Val has written for a number of WP series – Magic Farm, Magic Toy Shop and Lucky Stars. Read our interview with her below to hear about her writing life. To find out more, visit Val’s website: www.valeriewilding.co.uk.
Val, we’ve heard that you had an extraordinary journey into writing. Could you tell us how it happened?
I was certainly a late starter! I never had the slightest inclination to become a writer – never even thought about it. To my mind, authors weren’t real people like me. I imagined Enid Blyton living in a world of sunshine and green hedges, full of fun and fairies, picnics, thrills and witty parrots.
Then one morning I set out on holiday with my family. On the way I was chatting about how I used to love a radio programme called Listen With Mother.
‘I remember sitting, slack-jawed, staring into space as I listened to the stories,’ I told my husband. Then I grumbled about how, in my infant class, there was always at least one child who called out, ‘I can’t see the pictures!’ before I’d even got the book off the shelf.
‘I want them to have what I had,’ I said. ‘Stories that put pictures in their minds.’
‘Well, why don’t you stop moaning and write one?’ he said.
‘All right, I will,’ I said. Probably a trifle tetchily. ‘Stop in the next town.’
So we stopped, I bought a large blue spiral-bound book and a juicy pen, and that evening I sat in a field and wrote my first short story about a boy called Donald. Then I wrote another.
In all, I wrote ten stories about Donald, shamelessly road-testing them on my class. Then one of the children’s parents suggested I send them to an agent. (He knew as little about publishing as I did.) The agent sent back a standard rejection, but on the bottom she’d scrawled, ‘Why not try Radio 4’s Listening Corner?’
So I did. I’d made a tape for my nieces of me reading my stories and, in blissful ignorance, I sent it to the producer of the programme. Now, anyone who hears me knows I’m halfSouth Londonand half Hampshire hog, so it probably wasn’t the best idea. But it turned out to be a lucky one. The producer had a small son and, on one of their car journeys, she’d slipped my tape into the cassette player and her son, bless him, did the staring/slack-jawed thing. She commissioned ten of the stories for her programme!
And so I left home one morning with nothing particularly exciting going on, and by the time I went to bed, I knew I wanted to be a writer. My journey into writing actually did start with a journey!
The series you’ve contributed to for Working Partners are for younger readers. Do you find writing for this age range particularly appealing?
I do. I was an early reader, and was very lucky to have parents who pretended not to notice the book on my lap at mealtimes. I was fairly solitary as a child, as my sister was so much younger than me, and I read absolutely every chance I got. I even remember getting into my baby sister’s playpen when she was let out, as that was the only place she couldn’t get at me and my book. Those ‘young’ books opened up whole new worlds for me, so maybe that’s why I enjoy writing them so much.
Tell us about your own books. Are there any themes you find yourself returning to?
I write fiction and non-fiction for all ages. l think many of my characters, both girls and boys, have inner strength and are loyal, and cannot bear injustice. Those are things that matter to me. One thing that was pointed out to me by an editor is that quite a number of my girl characters are devoted to their older brothers. I hadn’t noticed that, and I think it’s odd, because I don’t have an older brother. I do remember reading the Famous Five books and longing to have an older brother like Julian (whatever was wrong with me?!). Anyway, I made sure that the last book I wrote for that editor didn’t have a single brother in it.
I adore history, and have written books set in Ancient Egypt andRome, and the Celtic, Tudor, Georgian, Victorian and wartime eras. My collection of history books is enormous, and the period I’m researching is always my favourite at the time. But I do seem to return to the Tudors quite a lot, and theTowerofLondonappears in a number of my books, simply because I love it so much.
How does writing for WP differ from writing your own books?
Clearly it’s different because the plotline and the basic characters aren’t mine. People sometimes say, ‘It must be boring, just expanding on an outline,’ or, ‘It sounds really easy.’ It’s neither. It’s challenging and it’s fun, and once I start a book it’s up to me how I bring it all to life.
The other difference is that with WP books, constructive feedback is guaranteed. When I got my first effort back, I nearly passed out because there was more of their blue editing on it than there was of my black typescript. But when I looked closely, the editors, bless them, hadn’t just asked for changes here and deletions there, they’d put in lovely comments where they felt things were just right. A little pat on the back goes down well!
Let’s talk method. Are you a computer lover or long-hand devotee? Do you write at home or on the go?
Oh, computers every time. I love my gadgets. I’ve tried to write longhand, because other writers make it sound such a perfect way to work, but it just doesn’t do it for me. I’m happiest writing at home, but trains are good for me, too. If I get the train toLondon, for instance, I always take my littlest laptop. And when I’m tired of typing, I stare out of the window. That’s when I’ve had some of my best ideas – just while gazing out at the fields and trees. Sometimes I fantasise about sitting and writing in a little summerhouse by a river (where the weather’s always perfect), but that’s not going to happen, so I content myself with my desk, overlooking the garden, or my comfy sofa.
What are you reading at the moment?
Oh dear, this is going to show what a grasshopper mind I have. These are my current adult reads. Beside my bed, I have Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, which I’m reading before I go to sleep. In the mornings, I always read in bed with my mug of tea, and at the moment it’s a biography of Jane Rochford, the wife of Ann Boleyn’s brother. All good Tudor stuff! My current bathtime read is a little Flipback copy of Pride and Prejudice. By the front door there’s an old copy of Wodehouse Nuggets which is ideal for waiting time on visits to the doctor or hairdresser. And on my coffee table is a pile of children’s books – there are four on top and seven on the shelf beneath – which I read while I’m having coffee or lunch, or simply because I can’t resist sitting down and dipping in. Like most writers, I have a real fear of being stuck somewhere without a book, so my Kindle is generally in my bag if I’m going any further than my own town. It’s loaded with books for all ages!
Thanks so much for talking to us, Val. Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring fiction writers?
When I sold those first stories, I began to sit up and take notice and discovered there was a whole world of publishing and writing out there, and I knew absolutely nothing about it. By then, I was so hooked on the whole thing that I read every book and magazine I could find on the subject. I joined writers’ groups, took courses – went for total immersion, in fact! I took the advice to write something every day, and I read as many modern children’s books as I could, estimated word counts, investigated series. I would honestly suggest that anyone thinking of writing for children would benefit from any of those things, especially as these days there’s so much more information out there, and it’s all so accessible.
After selling lots of the BBC stories, to my shame, and through sheer ignorance, I thought, ‘Oh, this is easy. I’ll write a few stories a month and give up my job.’ I was never so wrong! I had a dreadfully barren period when I could get nothing right, and rejection followed rejection. But I kept on reading and learning about the craft of writing. The one thing I’m so glad about is that I was persistent. I just kept on going, and eventually had the never-to-be-forgotten experience of holding my first book in my hand. So my other bit of advice is to never give up. Never give up when something’s going wrong. Never give up when the ideas won’t come. And never, ever let rejections make you give up. You can rewrite, improve, send it somewhere else. There’s always another door you can open.