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.
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.
The International School of Dakar – what a great school! – even two days there has convinced me of what an interesting, diverse and caring community of people it is. The staff and students were a joy to spend time with.
I wish I had taken more photos, but here are a few snapshots:
Elections will take place in Senegal on 26 February and already the country is hurting. Today the police fired teargas and plastic bullets at protesters downtown (video link).
There’s something about being in a brand new country that makes you open and willing to think the best of people, sometimes to the point of eyepopping naivety. Yesterday, my first day in Senegal, was a case in point. I arrived in the afternoon and in the evening I ate in a Moroccan restaurant with an family from the International School. After that I strolled down to Pointe des Almadies, which I had heard was the westernmost point of Africa. I went on my own down an unlit street, heading towards the sound of waves crashing on the rocks.
Out of the dark comes Ali Bho – a young man in his early twenties who wanted to tell me all about his life and ask me about mine. He was celebrating, he said, because his wife had just given birth to their first child, a baby boy. He had just been down to the sea to pour milk into the water, which he claimed would guarantee that his wife would always have enough milk for the baby. He said that the naming ceremony was the following day and that he intended to kill twelve fat goats for the hundreds of guests that would be coming.
As for me, I cooed and clucked and wowed at all the right places. I rejoiced with him about his newborn baby.
I’m so happy, said Ali Bho, embracing me. I’m happy to have a baby son and I’m happy to have found such a kind open-minded new friend. I’m in the silver and gold business, he added, and I’m so happy that I’m going to give you a large amount of silver as a gift.
No, I said. No, really, that’s fine. Your friendship is enough, Ali.
I insist, said Ali, switching from French to English. This (snapping a tight silver bracelet around my left wrist) is for you and this (another one on my right wrist) is for your wife and this (an even smaller bracelet) is for your daughter Liberty. I would not usually give these things to a stranger, but I am so happy tonight and you are such a kind and friendly person and it is clear you love Senegalese people.
I do, I do, said I. Thank you for your gifts. Je ne sais meme pas quoi dire. I don’t know how to thank you.
I’ve got to go now, said Ali – all I need from you now is your contribution to my naming ceremony. A little gift for my baby son. Some English money, perhaps, so that my guests and I can drink to your good health.
And that’s when I realized that I’d been had.
I think your gifts to me really have been too generous, I said. I cannot accept them. May God bless your baby and your whole family, but please, let me give you back your silver bracelets…
Back and forth we danced. I was trying to take the bracelets off my wrists and he was trying to put them back on. And all the while I was thinking, when I next go for a walk in the dark in an unfamiliar West African capital, I must bring at least a modicum of street-wisdom.
So anyway, that was that. Once I’d disentangled myself from Ali and his generosity, I went down to the Pointe and ate a plate of cockles and listened to the waves.
Today I’m teaching at the International School of Dakar. Four sessions on two subjects: ‘How to write a picture book’ and ‘How to research an adventure novel’. I’d better go and get ready.
Last week I did two author visits to the International School of Ouagadougou (ISO). A big thank you to all staff and students for your welcome (the decorated doors were fantastic!) and for making my time with you so action-packed and inspiring. I definitely want to write an action adventure series set in an International School, and I have come away with lots of ideas!