Finding the Excellent Lessons in Mistakes

Friday, December 14, 2018
Ailsa Wild Interviewed by Amy Adeney

A portrait of Ailsa Wild
Ailsa Wild

AA: You have a background in circus performance and physical theatre – what drew you to move into writing for children?

AW: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about seven. I remember reading C.S.Lewis’s dedication in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. In that moment I realised there was a human who had written the book with a whole other life outside the story world. I wanted that for a long time – to be the person who made the story. It just took me longer to write a book than it did for me to get up on stage! I think I’m particularly drawn to children’s fiction because I was at my most prolific as a reader between the ages of seven and thirteen. I read several novels a week in those years so I think children’s fiction is deeply embedded in my psyche.

AA: Your first junior fiction series Squishy Taylor is already up to its eighth instalment – what is it about Squishy that you think has captured the imagination of young readers?

AW: Ninth! And Book 10 comes out in April. Squishy is sneaky and cheeky and adventuresome – but she’s got a heart of gold. She puts herself into ridiculous amounts of danger (like ending up in the city stormwater drains as they’re about to flood, or climbing out a 13th story window) so there’s always and edge-of-your-seat kind of feeling. The narrative structures are modelled off classic crime, so they’re designed to be compelling. The books are also really contemporary in terms of how the step-family negotiates their relationships – very much loving and striving to be ethical, yet busy and chaotic – so the parents are totally exhausted! I think the family dynamic rings true for readers, and creates a safe place for the mystery adventures to launch from.

AA: Your workshop series will focus on the processes of redrafting, editing and refining a middle grade novel. Can you give us any insight into the most important steps in polishing a manuscript to prepare it for submission?

AW: While I’m writing, I go through a process of distillation where I articulate to myself the kernel and message of the story I’m trying to tell. Once I have a draft I use a few different tools for analysing my work, mapping it against various theoretical story structures, like the hero’s journey or the three-act structure, or the beats of a rom com. I don’t do this to stick rigidly with a formula, but because looking at the work from different angles means I often get new insights into it. I will often do several rewrites at this stage. I aim to reach a really clear sense of the story-arc, so I know what’s serving the story and then can ruthlessly cut away the rest. Then there’s a point where I need to show the story to outside eyes - who always help me see whether I’ve actually done what I thought I had. Sometimes whole swathes of the story are still in my head and not on paper as I’d thought, and there’s a lot more writing to be done. Reading out loud is good at this stage. Reading out loud to the target audience is even better. Within the re-drafting process I often rest a manuscript several times and then come back to it. Finally, of course, comes a serious copy edit.

But even this isn’t final, because once the manuscript in the hands of a publisher, there may be a long re-drafting and editing process. (I’m in the middle of several right now!)

AA: What do you think are some of the biggest mistakes writers make in analysing and refining their own work?

AW: I think the trickiest things at this point are judgment calls about process. When is the work ready to show someone? Who to show it to? Do you keep on doing more and more edits and changes? Or is it time to rest a manuscript and work on something else? Are you going to go with that person’s feedback? Or do you need to stick to your guns? These are tough decisions. It’s all about how you can get the clearest, sharpest thinking about your own work.

For me, it’s often a time when I’m navigating my big feelings, seeing what a huge job I still have ahead, maybe looking with fresh eyes and feeling disappointed that my beautiful vision isn’t as beautiful now it’s in paragraphs and pages. I’m frightened of ruining all my hard work if I do this editing bit wrong.

I think it’s really important not to be paralysed by the fear of making mistakes, but jump in, be brave, try things, persist, and then persist some more. ‘Mistakes’ are often excellent lessons if you stick around long enough.

AA: In addition to teaching adults to write for children, you also facilitate story writing and illustrating workshops for children themselves – what role do you do you think creating stories plays for this technology-driven generation?

AW: Children make stories. All the time. Children are making stories with their creative play for an exhausting number of hours a day. One of my favourite things about human development is children’s pleasure and absorption in story-making. It’s something as adults I think we can learn from. I don’t think being technology-driven makes people any less story-driven. Current technology means there are more mediums with which to tell stories, more platforms for young people to put their stories out into the world. But I do still think some of the best story-making technology we have is paper and pen – closely followed by collage and glue and whiteboards and the voice of a person who loves stories – which is what my workshops usually involve

AA: And finally, how does working with children inform your own writing process?

AW: Working with children reminds me that children aren’t just abstract characters, they are whole complex humans with rich lives that I want to respect when I put them in stories. I love having opportunities to read my work to children. They don’t even have to say anything, I just read out loud and watch their faces and that gives me so much information. They also have the most brilliant, wacky, ridiculous and sometimes very poignant plot ideas, ideas that ‘shouldn’t’ work but are amazing. Making stories with children reminds me that there’s something excellent about breaking the writing rules.

About Ailsa Wild

Ailsa Wild is an acrobat, whip cracker and teaching artist who ran away from the circus to do a Masters in Creative Writing at RMIT. Her ‘Squishy Taylor’ series was her first foray into the world of junior fiction. Ailsa has also collaborated on the graphic novel, ‘The Invisible War’, which was nominated by the Children's Book Council of Australia as a 'Notable Book of 2017' and winner of two awards in the 2017 Educational Publishing Awards Australia.