Rutland is the smallest county in England. Not a great place in which to have a heart attack (hospital waiting times are relatively high). Not a great place in which to be snowed in (county council budgets don’t always extend to gritters). But a great place to go to school, if Oakham School is anything to go by. I spent a very enjoyable afternoon there last week – well worth the long train journey. I won’t say any more here because the talks have been well described on the school’s own website: Winter Author Events 2012. Many thanks to librarians, staff and students for their warm welcome.
It’s always nice to see a library at the heart of a school, and the Regis School library is the most central and accessible school library I’ve ever seen, situated in a sunny atrium just beyond Reception. It is a well-stocked, busy library with fantastic staff. I spent a very enjoyable morning visiting some Year 7 groups at the Regis School and talking with them about the essential ingredients of a good story. They have clearly followed up on this theme – here’s a pic of Mrs Coleman enacting them in a wonderfully dynamic way! Many thanks to all at the Regis School for their warm welcome.
I enjoyed visiting Henry Cort Community College last Friday and spending a morning with Year 8. Some fantastic thriller concepts came out of the workshops, some of which sent a chill down my spine! ‘Locked in a zoo’ and ‘Brother versus brother’ were just two that I remember out of many strong ideas. Well done to all who took part, and to librarian extraordinaire Margaret Taylor who organized the visit.
Hampshire’s ‘Meet the Author’ programme aims to support literacy and to inspire reading and writing by giving children the opportunity to meet authors.
My participation in the programme took place last Thursday, first at Berrywood Primary (with visiting pupils from Shambleshurt Primary) and then at the New Forest Academy (with visiting pupils from Blackfield Primary and Wildground Junior School).
In the morning we did silly actions to help us remember the ingredients of a good story. Then Jamie got dressed up as a Saharan camel herder and Anna from Hedge End told a story about a girl who turns things pink wherever she goes (including a classic scene where a strawberry truck collides with a Post Office van and turns the road pink).
In the afternoon we watched some book trailers and talked about what makes a strong concept for an adventure story. One lad suggested ‘donkey on a bus’ – I’m not sure that has the same visceral appeal of ‘snakes on a plane’ but I’d be intrigued to read the story! We looked at pictures of children around the world and chose the girl below to base a story on.
We used the picture as a launch pad for discussing (a) the character of the girl and (b) possible ‘what ifs’ that could kickstart a story.
When you write a story, don’t go straight into describing the action, but take time to think first about your main character. Who is she? What’s she like? Is she loud or quiet, kind or mean, confident or shy? What does she like doing, what does she find hard, what is she afraid of, what are her secrets? And most importantly of all, WHAT DOES SHE WANT MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD?
Don’t go for the obvious. If you’re writing a story about a beauty pageant entrant (like the girl above), throw in some completely unexpected aspects to the character. One student had the idea that this little girl could be a terrorist mastermind. Another suggested that she might be a boy in disguise. Be as strange as you like – just don’t be predictable.
One student suggested that the girl is being entered into beauty pageants by an evil aunt who then steals all the money she wins. The girl longs to escape and travel the world. What might happen if she finally plucked up the courage to do so…?
Many thanks to Hannah at SLS for organizing the Meet the Author events and to Colin Telford at Hayling Island Bookshop for selling lots of lovely books. His is a small independent shop but also one of the most prolific events organizers on the south coast of England. The table cloth he uses for the book signing table has on it the signatures of Terry Pratchett, Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Widdecombe, Ian Whybrow, Kate Mosse, Derek Landy, Chris Ryan, Darren Shan, Louis de Bernieres, Sandi Toksvig, Julian Fellowes, Sir Andrew Motion, Lord Robert Winston, Alan Titchmarsh, Claire Tomalin, Sir Patrick Moore, Sir David Attenborough and many many others.
The purpose of author events such as this is to inspire the next generation of readers and writers. If your school is interested in booking a visit, please see my school visits page.
Always be careful if you use the overhead racks on a train. That was the principal lesson I learned on Tuesday morning.
I was getting the train from Chichester to Northwood, a suburb to the north-west of London, to spend a day with students at St Helen’s Senior Girls’ School. My presentations and speaking notes were in my laptop bag on the luggage rack. As we waited at East Croydon station I glanced up at the rack and the bag was nowhere to be seen. I asked those sitting around me if they had seen anyone get off with it. They had. But by the time I got to the door it was already locked – and the train was pulling out of the station. Rassum frassum.
Thankfully, the book I am currently writing was well backed up, so my loss is annoying rather than catastrophic. I should have been more careful. Please, if you’re travelling on a train (perhaps especially in the London area), keep an eye on your valuables!
St Helen’s is a delightful school, and I found the students motivated and full of good ideas. I did some workshops with Year 9 students on the subject of Research. Their energy and imagination more than made up for my lack of glitzy powerpoint slides. Many thanks to Elizabeth Howard for arranging and hosting the visit, and for patiently enduring five workshops on the same topic. Thanks also to the students, who asked incredibly insightful questions and came up with some great ideas.
The workshops have been written up very comprehensively on the school blog by Emily and Richa: Year 9 Author Visit – Stephen Davies. Well done, girls!
It was nice to do a visit close to home for once – this school is just around the corner from my daughter’s nursery. Many thanks to Miss Mootyen for hosting my visit, to budding authors Ethan and Milo for making my books into a very cool display down in the library, and to everyone in Year 7 and Year 8 who participated in the workshops and suggested great thriller concepts. If you weren’t able to buy a book today, fear not, there are now 2 copies of each of THE YELLOWCAKE CONSPIRACY, HACKING TIMBUKTU and OUTLAW in your library – I hope you enjoy them, and if (when you’ve finished) you feel compelled to give them good reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, then go ahead, not that I’m asking you to 😉 Anyway, here are some pics – click to enlarge.
Just back from Bradford, and a very enjoyable visit to Buttershaw Business and Enterprise College. I had the pleasure of meeting all of the Year 7 students and leading them through a workshop on thriller writing. They are going to be reading and discussing The Yellowcake Conspiracy.
“We are launching a new approach to teaching English this year, with the focus entirely on novels. This will just be for year 7 pupils to begin with, but we hope that we will be able to roll it our to all year groups eventually. The idea is that students who have not been given opportunities to read whilst growing up, will be able to experience the joy of literature, before having to sit down in exam hall and write a ton of essays!” – Miss Constable, English teacher, Buttershaw
Best student answer of the day, evidently from a Michael Jackson fan:
Q. What is a thriller?
A. It’s a song!
As for Bradford, what a great place. It was only my first visit, but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Bradford has the friendliest taxi drivers, hotel receptionists, fish fryers and teachers in the entire country.
Its town hall ain’t bad either.
Had a very enjoyable thriller-writing workshop this morning with a cracksquad of Year 7 writers from The Hayling College, Park Community School and Cowplain School. We talked about the ingredients of a good thriller and about the need to have a strong concept that you can ‘pitch’ in a very few words. We talked about heroes and villains, story arcs, high stakes and Snakes on a Plane. Then each table group worked on the concept and outline of their own thriller. There were some real crackers, including:
- Clawed mutants versus humans in a dystopian future
- Spies disguised as mannequins in a shop window
- A David Cameron doppelganger in the secret service
- Trapped inside IKEA with a killer
There’s a tendency, of course, among boys in particular, to want to explore inherently violent concepts, like that last one. Violence, real or threatened, is a part of most thrillers, but too much gore pushes your thriller over the edge into slasher territory. When writing your novel or screenplay it’s important to bear in mind Alfred Hitchcock’s maxim: There’s no terror in the bang of the gun, only the anticipation of it.
Well done to all those students who took part, and good luck with your own burgeoning writing careers.
A couple of links that might be of interest:
- How to Write a Thriller: this page from creative-writing-now.com has some very good advice about how to write a thriller.
- Year 7 thriller writing workshop: this is the Powerpoint Presentation I used for the workshop this morning. It won’t entirely make sense without the accompanying talk and activity guidelines, but it may contain material that is useful to you.
Author visits to schools are invaluable, and arranging for an author to visit your school is easier today than it has ever been. Author visits give students the opportunity to meet a children’s author and ask them questions about their work. The author visit can be part of a programme of events like Book Week or World Book Day, or it can fit into a scheme of work. In my experience schools often have an Africa week or some sort of engagement with the developing world, so my Africa-based books fit in well with students’ ongoing study.
In ISD we have an ancient tradition called book month. In honour of that tradition we invited Mr. Stephen Davies to come and give us an author visit. In preparation for the author’s visit, our class read the book called “The Yellowcake Conspiracy.” It was fascinating to think that we would be meeting the very person who wrote that book. (It’s a very good book by the way, you should read it.) Let me tell you something beforehand. We have had a couple of author visits before so we weren’t expecting much, from our experiences they were never too interesting.
So as I was saying, He came to our class to talk to us and we were blown away. He was so easy going and entrancing that we didn’t even notice the time going by. We never wanted it to end. (Well, at least I didn’t, and I can vouch for my friends too. It’s the whole class.) He actually taught us some techniques, and we were stunned. This was the first time we actually thought of writing as a fun thing to do! Weird right? Just kidding. Anyways, he encouraged us to use our experiences to tell a story. He gave us some background info on some of his books. Imagine hearing how a character in a book you read was made. It was cool, and he answered all of our questions and doubts about his books and writing in general. I’m not going to tell you what else he did or specify, because you’ll just have to meet him yourself and find out.
He joked around and put us at ease. We could relax around him, and it made us happy. I think I can speak for my class in saying that it was productive and fun. He made writing seem natural and “cool”. We really wanted him to stay, but he left the day after he spoke to our class. I’m going to quote one of my friends on this. She said, “He was my best friend, I’m sad that he left!” (Just in case you were wondering, if she likes you, you’re her best friend.) I think many of us are thinking about writing as a hobby now. I certainly am.
Your Future Famous Author, and Student at ISD,