Friday, 18 April 2014

Creative Writing- can it be taught? - Linda Strachan

There has been a lot of debate about whether creative writing can be taught and whether it should be taught.  
I do believe that you can teach certain aspects of creative writing - but then I would say that, having written a book about it!   
Some say writers should be free to find their own way, to experiment. That is fine, but why reinvent the wheel?
I think it is akin to someone who wants to draw buildings or street scenes being told that no one should teach them about perspective, they should find out by trial and error.

There are aspects of any skill, including writing, that can be taught, there is always something new to learn and I think the best teachers in any field will encourage students to go out and experiment, but they give them some kind of board to dive from.
It is important that the people who are teaching have some kind of credibility and publishing credentials. There are so many universities and colleges offering creative writing courses and I often wonder how many of them give their students any insight into the realities of what it takes to survive as a writer in this day and age. Do they tell them how uncertain a career path it is, that even if the book they write on the course gets published (with lots of time, help and support when writing it), that is no guarantee for the future?

I get a real buzz from working with emerging writers of any age. I love encouraging people to explore their creativity, and watching as they discover they have written something that surprises them; seeing ideas blossom into stories and their characters growing into fully fleshed out people.
We all know that writing can be scary, and sharing it with others is sometimes the most difficult thing, which is why creating a sense of trust within a group of students is so important. They should feel safe, and confident that any comments though honest, will not be destructive.  Whether a novice writing in secret, or an experienced writer waiting to hear what people think of your new book, we all feel wary when putting our latest creation out there. People may not like it!  But we keep on writing, because we love it, and hate it, and we just have to do it.
Moniack Mhor

I recently spent a weekend at Scotland's Creative Writing Centre, Moniack Mhor.  I've been there a few times before, tutoring Arvon courses much like those discussed in the post last Sunday The Arvon Habit by Sheena Wilkinson.   

This time I was working with a group of adults both at Moniack Mhor and at the Abriachan Forest Trust, on a short course called Words in the Landscape, and what a landscape it is!
View from my window at Moniack Mhor

We spent one day at Abriachan walking in the forest, being inspired by our surroundings. 

It was wonderful to stand quietly in the middle of the forest and -

LISTEN to the quiet, and the noises we often miss because we are talking or making noise ourselves -
Abriachan Forest Trust cabin classroom

LOOK at everything around us from the great majesty of trees to the smallest insect walking on the water - 

FEEL the wind against your skin, the warmth of the early spring sunshine -

IMAGINE what creatures might have inhabited these woods thousands of years ago, or in an imaginary world far away.  

Artist's Impression of Straw Bale Studio

On the second afternoon at Moniack Mhor some of us were lucky enough to be the first to try out the newly finished Straw Bale Studio, an 'eco friendly tutorial space. It was really exciting to see it finished.

I had watched some of the early stages of the build when I was there in August last year.

The group created some great stories and ideas for further writing.

I always come away inspired and ready to get back to my own writing. 

Running courses in creative writing reminds me to make sure my readers will care about my characters; to make the plot layered, the characters flawed and fascinating; to work harder on dialogue, and at making the plot grab the reader and pull them through the story.  It sharpens my critical senses and reminds me of all the things I have been working on with my students.  

Teaching creative writing is hard work but rewarding in so many ways.


Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children  

Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  

Linda  is  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh 

blog:  Bookwords

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The best bums in children’s fiction – or, why so many kid’s books about bottoms? – Emma Barnes

A favourite bottom book!

And another!
I’ve jumped onto the bottom bandwagon!

I didn’t meant to. I didn’t consciously set out to write a book featuring bottoms. It was only when Penny Dolan wrote that Wild Thing was “much more than a book that gets 8 year-old children laughing because they enjoy reading about rude words” that I realized what I’d done. I, too, had written a book featuring children's fascination with their nether regions.

 It’s not exactly an untapped theme in children’s literature. (In modern times, anyway – you won’t find Jo March, Anne of Green Gables or even Just William having much to say about posteriors.) But whether it’s Nicholas Allen’s delightful Cinderella’s Bum or the famously scatological The Little Mole Who Thought It Was None Of His Business, there’s a whole branch of kids’ books about rear ends and what comes out of them. In fact when I (rather bravely) did some googling, I was stunned to find out just how many titles there were.

I suppose the whole bottom thing can be seen as a cynical ploy. If you want to get children laughing, then “rude words” as Penny implies, are a good way to do it. This wasn’t really on my mind, though. The truth is, having spent the last several years in close contact with young children, I’ve been forcibly reminded how fascinating all things bum and poo –related are to them. I’ve walked behind four year olds whose only obsession is with spotting possible dog poo – and not to avoid standing in it, but out of pure fascination with the subject. “No, that’s only a dead leaf,” I’ve said wearily, more times than I can  remember.

So it’s not surprising the theme cropped up in Wild Thing, which is at heart a realistic, family story. The subject first arises when an inadvertent slip of the tongue by Gran allows five year old Wild Thing to get going on a favourite subject.

“Gran said bottom!” 
“No, she didn’t.” 
“Yes, she did.” Wild Thing grinned. “A butt is a bottom.You’ve got a big butt!” She pointed at me. “And Gran’s got a wrinkly one!” 
Then she danced off across the garden, shouting, “BUTT! BEHIND! BOTTOM! BUM!” at the top of her voice. She almost crashed into a tree. 

Wild Thing waggles her bum (Jamie Littler illustrator)

The incident leads to a wild chase and the invention of the Bite the Bottom game – yet another source of daily embarrassment for poor older sister Kate! When I’ve read the passage aloud in schools, the effect has been electrifying. On the occasion where I had a staff member “signing” the bottom-biting scene (and giving a fine theatrical performance of the bottom-chomping incident) I thought everyone was going to be reduced to a dangerous level of hysteria.

It’s true, folks. Rude bits really do make them laugh.
In school...the arrow fittingly pointing at a certain place!

Grown-ups can be a bit sniffy, I suppose, and feel that the whole bottom thing is crude, overdone, and playing to the crowd. But then children feel much the same about adult interests. Remember The Princess Bride and the little boy recoiling from the sloppy bits – “Yuk kissing!” Anyone who has watched TV with a child will recognize that response. (It’s also beautifully captured in Judith Viorst’s classic picture book, Alexander’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day – where the kissing on TV is almost as bad as the lima beans for dinner.)

So let’s allow children their interests, just as adults are allowed theirs. After all, for the average five year old, toilet training and bed wetting are still very immediate issues, and getting oneself to the toilet on time can be a source of pride (or sometimes an embarrassing failure). Adults take all this for granted – although actually, of course, many adults, especially in later life, don’t. Sadly, it often becomes a source of shame and embarrassment again, with many incontinent adults suffering in silence. So if children can openly laugh and celebrate all things rear-end, then let’s embrace that! Humour, as a recent ABBA poster pointed out, is also a way of dealing with things that trouble us.

So Bottoms Up, folks! And why not nominate your own favourite rude title?

Emma's new book, Wild Thing,  about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways), is out now from Scholastic. It is the first of a series for readers 8+.
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman
"Charming modern version of My Naughty Little Sister" Armadillo Mag

 Wolfie is published by Strident.   Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf. 
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps
"This delightful story is an ideal mix of love and loyalty, stirred together with a little magic and fantasy" Carousel 

Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Why do we believe these things? - John Dougherty

Image © LostMedia
Ever since the beginning of my involvement with the publishing industry, I’ve had the suspicion that its thinking is full of ‘accepted truths’ that are, in fact, not true. My suspicions are growing.

One of these so-called accepted truths - shall we call them SCATs for short? - is the idea that “boys won’t read books with a girl as the central character”. I was involved in a conversation recently where this was asserted as fact.

- Hmmm, I said; but is that true? After all, boys read Mr Gum, and the hero of those books is a girl.
- Yes, came the reply, but it’s sold on Mr Gum himself.
- The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe? It’s Lucy’s story, really. If there’s a central character, it’s her.
- Yes, but there’s Peter and Edmund and Susan, too, so it’s a gender-balanced story.
- Northern Lights?
- Yes, but Pullman’s exceptional, isn’t he?
- The Hunger Games?
- Well, sometimes a book comes along that just breaks all the rules.

…and so on. 

Interestingly, the person who most strongly made such statements also quite blithely said that their company does no marketplace research; they just trust in instinct & experience.

This is not to denigrate anyone involved in the conversation; they’re all good people who have achieved much in the world of publishing, and it was a privilege to talk to them. But it did get me wondering - is there in fact any real evidence to support the idea that boys won’t read books about girls? Or is it simply an unfounded myth that has gained traction and now won’t let go?

On the same day, I responded to a tweet from the inestimable Let Toys Be Toys campaign about their Let Books Be Books initiative. They’re building a gallery - which is here and growing; do take a look - to challenge this idea. Examples there, and others I’ve spotted or thought of since, include:

  • Alice in Wonderland 
  • The Silver Chair
  • Matilda
  • the Sophie stories
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • A Face Like Glass
  • Peter Pan & Wendy (interesting, isn’t it, that since Disney the title has been shortened to Peter Pan, when really it’s Wendy’s story?)
  • The BFG
  • Mr Stink
  • the Tiffany Aching books
  • The Story of Tracy Beaker
  • Sabriel
  • Fever Crumb

And there are more. Does anyone honestly think boys won’t read Geraldine McCaughrean’s wonderful The White Darkness or Not The End of the World? Is Tony Ross’s Little Princess really rejected by half the toddler population? Does the possession of external genitalia truly impede enjoyment of The Secret Garden?

Then I started thinking about my own childhood reading. I was a very insecure boy, bullied by my classmates, and gender-shaming was one of their weapons. I learned early on that anything that marked me out as insufficiently masculine was to be avoided. So did that mean I didn’t read “girls’ books?” Nope. I just read them in secret. I rather enjoyed Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl and St Clare’s series, for instance, and Pollyanna; and truth to tell if gender wasn’t signified on the cover in some way then it didn’t even occur to me to ask if the central character was a boy. The two things that sometimes stopped me from reading books about girls - or being seen to read them - were:

  1. the fear of being shamed
  2. being given the message in some way that these books were not for me

In other words, there was nothing about either me or the book that made us a poor match. It was external pressure that got between me and those stories. And despite what my classmates would have had you believe, I don’t think I was a weirdo.

This isn’t the only SCAT that restricts young readers and the adults who write for them. Malorie Blackman recently challenged the idea that white children won’t read books starring characters from minority backgrounds. And where did we get the idea that children won’t read about adult characters? Have we forgotten how successful Professor Branestawn was in his day - or that children are happy to read about King Arthur’s knights, or Heracles, or Superman? 

Do we really believe that children are so closed-minded as to only want to read about characters like themselves? Do we honestly think so little of them? And if we think it true that children need characters to be like them even in age, colour and gender before they can identify with them, why are we happy to give them stories about rabbits and hedgehogs and guinea-pigs, about water-rats and moles and toads and badgers? Is there any sense at all in the assertion that a boy will identify with a different species more readily than with the opposite sex? That a white child will happily imagine himself to be a dog or a pig, but balk at imagining himself as black? 

We need to challenge these SCATs. They’re bad for books; they’re bad for readers; they’re bad for our society. So thank goodness for Let Books Be Books. Thank goodness for Malorie Blackman. Thank goodness for those people who are prepared to say, “Is there any actual evidence for that?” - and let’s agree to be those people ourselves.

And if we ever feel unsure of our ground, and wonder if maybe the SCATs are right, let’s remember a film industry SCAT recently reported by Lauren Child. Let’s remember that she was told a Ruby Redfort film was out of the question, because a female lead in a kids’ film is box-office poison.

And let’s remember that the highest-grossing animation of all time is now Disney’s female-led Frozen.


John's latest book is Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers (OUP)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Coleridge, Iron Maiden and the Paris students by Miriam Halahmy

I am holding a version of the Rime edited by Sassie, Anne Rooney.
After visiting a Paris school in January to run workshops on Peace and Tolerance, the Sixth Form students came to London last week on a literary tour and I invited them up to Highgate Village. I was keen to share my enthusiasms for Coleridge, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and all the literary connections in Highgate.  The students walked up Highgate Hill which warmed them up on that cold and drizzly Sunday and I told them about the Dick Whittington.

Painted by Ben Wilson, Chewing Gum artist.
Our first stop was my chewing gum painting, completed by Ben Wilson in 2010. I told the students how Coleridge and Keats had met in 'Poets Lane'/ Millfield Lane and shaken hands. Afterwards Coleridge had said that Keats was 'not long for this world.' Keats died the following year aged 25. All of this was recorded by Ben on a tiny piece of chewing gum and as you can imagine, the students were bowled over.

We then walked on to number 3, The Grove, where Coleridge lived for the last 18 years of his life with the Gilmans. Dr Gilman helped him to reduce his addiction to laudanum. I read extracts from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the students and explained how Coleridge was a radical, influenced by the French Revolution and often regarded with deep suspicion in England as a possible traitor. An outsider, who suffered terrible nightmares, the ancient mariner reflects so much of the character of the poet.

The students in The Grove near Coleridge house
where Kate Moss now lives!

"Aha!" says Viktor ( the one with the thumb up in the photo and long hair) "have you heard the Iron Maiden version of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner?"
No, I hadn't - I mentioned that when I grew up Led Zeppelin was rather popular -
 Viktor - who plays just about every musical instrument - learnt to play guitar bass to 'Whole Lotta Love' when he was only twelve!
But if you are keen to follow this up - here is the Youtube link to Iron Maiden and the Rime. It is quite mind blowing!

It was lovely renewing all my friendships with the Paris school. These students will be leaving next term and going on to university in the autumn. I have been invited back to the school in October to run more workshops for their European peace project. But I won't be seeing Viktor and Janis and Julie and all their friends again. I wish them all the best and it was great to take them round one of my favourite bits of London. Salut mes amis!

Now we are friends on Facebook and here are some of the comments.
"C'etait geniale, Miriam...thank you for your visit, I enjoy to see you again." Julie.
"We really enjoyed visiting Highgate Village, it was interesting and fun." Janis.

Monday, 14 April 2014

When A Writer Loses Her Voice Anne Cassidy

At first glance you will think post is about some form of Writers’ Block. You may think that I am going to describe a time when I sat down at my computer and couldn’t think of a single things to write. This has never happened to me. I have too many stories in my head.

This post is about me losing my actual voice and the effect it has had on being a writer.

Last summer I had a hoarse voice. I expected it to get better within a week or so but it didn’t. I put up with it for a few further weeks enjoying the sympathy I got from friends and family and thought I’d wake up one day back to normal with my regular voice. It didn’t happen.
I went to the doctors. She sent me to see a specialist and a quick scan was organised and I was told that thankfully it wasn’t anything ‘bad’ but that my left vocal chord was not working. They could give no reason for this and called it ‘idiopathic’ which means that they didn’t know what caused it. It could be a virus and if so might take eighteen months to go away (if it did). Meanwhile I could get some speech therapy to help.

The manifestation of this problem was a voice with less volume. It meant that I seemed out of breath and husky and struggled to make myself heard. Initially I tried all sorts of remedies. I stopped the inhaler I used for asthma. I gargled loads. I ‘saved’ my voice. I whispered.  Nothing worked.

I make my living by writing. So fortunately my voice isn’t an issue here. Is it?

I’ve always been one to argue on the importance of talking about books. For me talking about books and writers is a crucial way of promoting books and reading in general. A chat about a writer or a book makes me go and look up their books and try one. But the act of talking, itself, is a way of making sense of the world and what we might like to do or read or not read. So a discussion on books is a way of my sorting out in my head what it is I like and don’t like. So the ability to talk unfettered is an important part of the reading process.

Equally, for me, talking is a crucial part of the writing process. Having ideas about stories and talking them through with friends or family (or editors) is one of the ways in which I build my stories. Discussing a plot development is a way of trying it out outside my head. My character will do this or maybe it would be better if she does that… Walking the dogs and running through a possible plotline with my husband or my sister or my mum is a way of making that story real, testing its convinceability meter (spellcheck went mad here).

We learn through talk. My twenty years teaching showed me that. I am still learning as a writer.

But when the act of talking is an effort sometimes you don’t bother. When I’m explaining and my husband says What? Pardon? Several times I tend to give up. When I say things and it’s quite clear that people haven’t heard me I think, why bother? Not good. I remember watching Musharaf, the boy with the stutter on Educating Yorkshire, and understanding why people might give up trying.

There is another problem. I have always been happy to do school visit and of course my first concern was that I wouldn’t be able to stand in front of a large crowd and give a one hour talk. The funny that was that didn’t turn out to be the problem. The school provided a microphone. After an initial apology for my scratchy voice I was able to give my usual talk. The problem came with the ‘social’ aspect to the visit. Meeting teenagers and trying to talk to them. They are usually incredibly shy anyway and don’t come very close. In the past I would talk to them about what they were reading and what kind of books they liked, just chit chat. But now I found I couldn’t do it because they couldn’t hear me.

I am now (after eight months) used to my voice. I am persevering with the speech therapy. In my struggle to pronounce words I am beginning to end them succinctly (if at a low volume) and my husband says I am beginning to sound ‘posh’. That would be a funny outcome for this cockney girl. To end up sounding like a BBC reader!

So, if you see me out and about don’t be put off by my little voice. Ask me about my stories and, with some difficulty, I will tell you what I’m working on.