Category Archives: writing

My Top Five Must-Haves for Writing

  1. Timer

This really does come first. I use a timer for motivation in all kinds of work, and it really does help. When I’m struggling to focus (i.e. cataloguing socks is suddenly looking ridiculously tempting), just setting a simple kitchen timer for 15 minutes, putting the phone away, turning wifi off and doing NOTHING ELSE for those 15 minutes will get me started. It’s great for busy days too – 15 minutes each on a handful of tasks moves me further in a morning than the faffing that I would do otherwise.

  1. Stamps

Not postage ones, but children’s brightly coloured stars, hearts, faces etc. Some people use stickers. This is exactly the same principle, but stamps are less consumable (and, I suppose, less varied). It’s a simple yet effective anti-procrastination motivational technique which becomes more powerful the more stamps/stickers you have lined up – once there are a few in a row,  it becomes more and more important (and easier) to keep going.

I use a set of Crayola pen stampers and assign different meanings to different designs, so 1 is for exercise, 1 for writing a blog, another for fiction writing and so on. When I’ve done the thing, I stamp the calendar day. It works really well to help build and maintain ‘streaks’ of good habits. Some people allocate a stamp/sticker to a certain number of words written or to pages edited etc or to time spent; I just credit for having done it at all (my standards are low, alright?).

  1. SCBWI membership

The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators is a fabulous organisation for those of us working in that area. A lot of what is offered is geared to fiction, but non-fiction writers are welcomed too. Membership is open to anyone interested in children’s books – you do not need to be published. The Society organises critique groups, a British Isles conference (which I went to for the first time this year, and loved) and many smaller events. I am drafting this on the train to a day workshop on writing series fiction for 5-8 yr olds taught by a successful author in that area, for example. There is a lot of skill-sharing, which is invaluable, and conducted with a generosity of spirit.

  1. Notebook and pencil

I write on computer, but all my planning and ideas generation is carried out by paper and pencil – or occasionally an array of coloured pens. I could not write anything without this stage.  Of course, when I say notebook, I really mean my trusty organiser from Cordwain Higgler. Isn’t she lovely? I’m going to do a post all about her one day.

  1. Scrivener

I am a relatively recent convert, but I have transferred all my novel plotting to Scrivener’s outline board and I love it. It allows for clear organisation of ideas; moving around (and insertion) of parts; separation into scenes/chapters/acts to clearly see turning points etc – fabulous for a structure junkie like me! You can alo have character notes, older drafts, research notes and anything else you like saved right in the file but not part of the word count of the story for easy viewing – so useful! (yes, yes, I know – I should have been using this years ago and no, I’m not on commission, and I know it would be even better if I were a Mac person, but there we are…).

What are your writing must-haves?

New Year’s Blog Resolutions

Jpeg Those of you who are, like me, blessed with lurchers, greyhounds and the like, will be familiar with their ‘zoomies’ habit: that is, their love for running in circles. They may chase each other, like our two are doing here, or they may perform solo just for the sheer love of it. Those of you who are, like me, cursed with an anxious brain, will also be familiar with the way the mind does exactly the same thing about the most ridiculous of things. I have a confession: I have allowed blogging to become a source of stress by getting bogged down in anxious and negative thoughts about how it’s ‘supposed’ to be.

This is ridiculous because I love blogging. Above all else I love the book blogging community. I have no idea, however, how some manage to blog so regularly. I’ve seen some people post a book review or discussion post a day – now that’s commitment. As is clear, I cannot boast that level of commitment to blogging, however much I’d like to.

Having had various plans over the last couple of years, which have mostly gone awry due to my complete inability to meet them, here are my new blogging resolutions (which, incidentally, fit in rather neatly with my general resolution to take a bit better care of myself):

  1. I will avoid the accusatory verb ‘should’ in thinking about how much/often I blog, especially compared to others.
  2. I will stop worrying about writing long and detailed reviews for every book I read and continue to find other ways to support and recommend the books I enjoy and value. Posts like ‘recommendations round-up’ and ‘literary lonely hearts’ features have worked well for this (I think), allowing sufficient description and discussion to give a good enough flavour of a book to show readers whether it might suit them.
  3. I will focus on more unusual posts like the ‘reading teacher’ ones. They have had a great response and I enjoyed writing them.
  4. I will be bolder about pointing publicists who have sent me books to these more unusual posts as they do still promote their titles (and will try not to worry that they want me to just write reviews and not these different posts).

 

The other lurcher gift – this level of chill – about it all is what I am aiming for: 2015-09-27 17.09.47

I hope you all have a brilliant 2016!

The Reading Teacher: Two Extracts from Recent Teen Fiction to Teach Writing

I have written before about the tension between writing ‘rules’ taught in primary school and advice shared with those who seek publication. Today, I thought rather than rehash that rant, I’d offer something a bit more concrete. So, here are the openings of a couple of recent UKYA novels that classes could explore to discuss some ways in which good writing works.

With less time for ‘reading’ lessons in KS3 and none with older students, it’s a good way to be able to push books in front of them that they might be interested in reading. I’m always happy to make stealth UKYA recommendations to my classes, convinced that this is a much more likely way to gain an extra reader or two than only ever showing them the classics.

I’ve happily used these (and others) with classes from KS3 to A Level. The novels are marketed as Young Adult, but in practice will be read by about 12 to adult (I enjoy them, so I’m not putting an end age, OK?). I’ve chosen a contemporary story and an urban fantasy for today, as I would pair these together in a lesson in order to meet different tastes in reading (and to show that genre writing matters too).

Teaching Dialogue: Emma Hearts LA, Keris Stainton

Orchard Books, 2012

‘Most girls of your ageemma hearts la would jump at the chance to move to California,’ my mum says. She had been standing in front of the fireplace to make the big announcement, but, thanks to my reaction to it, she’s now sitting on the sagging sofa next to me.

I stare at her. ‘You are joking, right?’

‘No. No, I’m not joking,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry, Emma, but this is a great opportunity for me. And it’s a great opportunity for us as a family.’

I glance at my sister, who’s sunk deep in a beanbag in the corner of the room. She’s fiddling with her phone, a half-smile on her face.

‘Bex!’ I say. ‘You can’t be pleased about this! Tell me you’re not pleased about this!’

She glances up at me from under her floppy fringe. ‘I think it’ll be cool to live in Hollywood.’

‘Well, it won’t actually be Hollywood,’ Mum says.

‘Near enough,’ Bex says, grinning. She’s a drama dork, my sister. I bet she thinks she’ll be talent-spotted at the airport and have her own Disney XD show by the end of the year.

‘It’s a new start,’ Mum says.

This extract is brilliant for exploring pacing in dialogue and the technicalities of using dialogue in story writing. Here are a few of the things I’ve had different kinds of students do with this text:

  • Highlight/underline all the actual speech to look at how the author has spread it out, using commentary from the narrator to provide additional information and stretch out the tension.
  • Explore why authors rarely actually vary speech verbs (better to use said/says, which becomes invisible rather than ‘bogging down’ the text; speech can be attributed using other comments e.g. ‘I stare at her’, ‘She glances up…’ in this example).
  • Examine the tone and language of the speech to see how it has been made realistic, perhaps then asking students to rewrite or produce a dialogue-heavy piece of writing of their own.
  • Explore specific features of the dialogue and speech-like aspects of the narration:
    • grammatical: why contractions are mostly used but then not in ‘you are joking?’
    • grammatical: minor and incomplete sentences such as ‘near enough’ and
    • lexical: repetition, discourse markers and recycling/repetition.
  • Discuss the way dialogue and narration are used together to create a voice which speaks to the reader and firmly places us on Emma’s side (e.g. the suggestion of mum’s ‘staging’ of her announcement and the focus on Bex’s unrealistic expectations).

Teaching Atmospheric Writing: The Night Itself, Zoë Marriottthe night itself

Walker Books, 2013

Stealing the sword was a bad idea. I can’t pretend I didn’t realize that at the time. I wasn’t even supposed to know about the thing, let alone sneak up and snaffle it from the attic where it was carefully concealed in the dark, under layers of cobwebs and rotting Christmas decorations. I was fully aware that if my father found out about the sword or about me taking it, he’d pop a blood vessel from sheer fury and kill me. Or die. Maybe both.

If your family’s priceless heirloom is some ugly vase or painting, like on the Antiques Roadshow, the worst thing that can happen if you mess with it is that you’ll smash it or ruin the patina or something. My family’s antique is a different story. Sixty-two centimetres of curved, single-edged steel, designed with a single purpose: to kill. You’d probably call it a samurai sword. But its proper name is katana.

And I needed it for my Christmas party costume.

I’ve used this extract as an example of a strong opening, creating a sense of both character and of plot. Something exciting is clearly going to happen. Here are a few activities I’ve found useful with various student groups in exploring this text:
  • Highlight/underline the descriptive phrases to explore the balance of description and information. There are some effective descriptive details, but too much at this point would swamp the story and slow it down too much.
  • Printing the extract out with a space after every sentence for the students to write back. This could be a question to the narrator (what sword? why did you steal it?) or their own journal-type musings (hmm, I’m interested now). With some students, making it a live-tweeting-type activity has worked well, with a sentence at a time on a powerpoint and ‘tweets’ written on mini whiteboards to capture their reactions. This leads nicely into a discussion about how the author manages (manipulates is such a harsh word…) reader emotions and expectations, especially if you can save some of those ‘tweets’ for discussion at the end, once the whole has been seen.
  • Examining sentence and paragraph length. Students too often write very long sentences and very long paragraphs. I have made students count words, list the words in each sentence and paragraph and then edit a piece of their own work to these rules:
    • no single paragraph longer than the first paragraph here (in number of words)
    • no single sentence longer than the longest sentence here
    • only one ‘long’ sentences (calculated as mean of three longest sentences here) per paragraph
    • at least one very short sentence per paragraph
  • Discussing tone: highlight/underline parts that fall into these categories, in order to show how more impressive vocabulary is balanced with more colloquial language to avoid an overly distanced or alienating tone. The separation of the final sentence is also worth discussion in terms of its punchline-like effect. With older/more able students, I also discuss how the syntax creates a spoken feel, focusing on:
    • unusual high-register/’fancy’ words
    • unusual colloquial/’slangy’ words
    • sentences that ‘feel’ chatty/casual
  • Exploring how to set up a story without over-explaining. Students list what we learn from this extract about:
    • the narrator
    • her family
    • the plot
  • Examining how the motif of conflict is seeded in this opening, by pulling out all the contrasted ideas and words.

What do you think? If you enjoyed this/found it interesting/useful, please do let me know. I’d love to feature further ‘popular’ fiction extracts that I’ve used in class along with what I’ve done with them.

Linking everything together: how my textbook writing draws on my life

You may think that writing English textbooks would be very dull and unimaginative. In my experience, however, writing textbooks and school resources is just as creative and personal an endeavour than writing stories, just in a different way.

There are of course restrictions and certain things that have to be included. You couldn’t have a GCSE English Language textbook without work on persuasive devices or writing descriptively (in the very specific ways that GCSE requires), for example – but this is where the creativity can come in. One of the beauties, for me, of writing this kind of material is in choosing the texts and data for students to work with.

Lang textbook

This past week, there was quite a bit of excitement in my department at work as sample material from the new AQA A Level English Language book was given out, with my name on the cover. For many, this was replaced by hilarity when people spotted that I had pulled together a batch of texts about dogs (I’m quite a doggy person…) for students to work on, not least a photo of my own dogs featured in a tweet.

UKYA recs
L-R: KS3 student book, KS3 teacher book, IGCSE student book

This made me think about how some of my other textbooks have drawn on my own experience and interests. Running this blog, and more specifically, being plugged in to the UKYA publishing world in a small way has certainly has a positive effect on my usage of texts in the teaching resources I have written.

I think it’s brilliant that I can be a blogger and a textbook author, as blogging has made me aware of some fabulous YA (especially UKYA) texts that other teachers might not be familiar with, making them known to the students using these textbooks in class. Obviously, I am also including the staple Dickens and Bronte passages, but how lovely to be able to also show students great recent writing, which they may wish to investigate further!

Books referenced in this post:

  • A-Level English Language for AQA, OUP, 2015 (Dan Clayton, Angela Goddard, Beth Kemp, Felicity Titjen)
  • First Language English for Cambridge IGCSE, Nelson Thornes, 2014 (Beth Kemp)
  • Essential Anthology for KS3: Communication and Information (Student Book), 2014, Nelson Thornes (Christina Brookes, Caroline Davis, Ken Haworth, Beth Kemp, Nicola Williams)
  • Essential Anthology for KS3: Communication and Information (Teacher Book), 2014, Nelson Thornes (Christina Brookes, Caroline Davis, Ken Haworth, Beth Kemp, Nicola Williams)

Here’s to the New School Year!

I always feel much more ‘new year-ish’ in September than in January. I think it’s true for a lot of teachers, but also for many whose home or work lives revolve around the school calendar. This one is feeling particularly good for me. Having been in quite a negative place a couple of years ago, I find myself feeling cheered by looking back over the past year, and forward to the rest of this new one.

Last year was full of hustle and bustle for me, and I occasionally felt quite stressed with all that I had to do. Looking back, though, I’m pleased with what I accomplished. Look at all these lovely books that I worked on, published over the last academic year. I feel a bit less guilty now that fiction and blog writing took something of a back seat last year, given that I was also in school full time.Jpeg

Anyway, I’m working in a lovely school for the second year in a row, now on a part-time timetable which is going to make things a lot easier for me. At this point, I’ve met all my classes at least twice and can confirm that I have lovely students. I also love that the majority of my classes are sixth form, and I’m getting to teach the new AS in Creative Writing this year. Being part-time means that I can return to my own more creative writing endeavours as well as continuing to work on interesting educational projects. So, it’s all looking good for the moment!

How is your new academic year looking?

Mothers in Hidden Among Us and The Hidden Princess – guest post from Katy Moran

Today, Katy Moran, author of Hidden Among Us and The Hidden Princess, is here to talk about mothers in YA novels and specifically in her Hidden duo. If you haven’t read these novels, I would definitely recommend them.

Mothers are often necessarily absent from YA fiction. Usually, you can’t get your heroine or hero into the truly epic amount of trouble that makes a good story with their mum in the

Hidden Princessbackground cooking tea and asking if they have done their homework. Connie has grown from being a vulnerable little sister in Hidden Among Us to a spiky heroine in her own right in The Hidden Princess, and whilst Miriam might be a bit emotionally distant with her, there is no way Connie could have planned an illegal rave with her mum on the doorstep. It’s the second party in my Hidden books to which the fae Hiddhidden among usen arrive as uninvited guests, with awful and far- reaching consequences each time around. Sometimes you just have to get rid of the mothers for these horrendous screw-ups to occur, and to give your teenage leads the chance to emerge (or not) from disaster without any adult help.

On the other hand, it’s definitely not common in YA to actually hear a mother’s side of the story. After all, these novels are about the young, the cool and the desperate, not about their mums. But in Hidden Among Us, the first of my Hidden books, when Connie is still just a little girl, I decided to narrate a few chapters from the perspective of Miriam. To really understand why she is such a different mother to each of her three children, we need to hear her side of the story and how she was led into the terrible position of getting too close to these dangerous fae creatures, and subsequently having to make a choice between Lissy, Connie and Rafe. Writing from Miriam’s perspective in flashbacks to her own teenage years and early twenties made her a more well-rounded character. I think she’d be just a textbook over-protective mum, otherwise.

The Hidden books aren’t just about the loss of children, though. The death of Larkspur’s mother sparks a revenge plot that forces all my characters into intolerable situations and leads them into situations where they are forced to make impossible choices. My fear is that I should have explored Larkspur’s mother more deeply as a character. I worry that I fridged her – that she falls into the category of the cardboard cut-out dead female who exists only to generate a revenge plot for male characters. I wish I’d been able to round her out a little more without compromising on pace.

Writing novels is a good way for authors to explore their own worst fears. The mothers in The Hidden Princess and Hidden Among Us were born from my own worst fears as a mum, not from my actual mother, who couldn’t be more different to Miriam. That desperation to protect all her children comes from a very deep and instinctive source inside me, and the fact that she can’t protect all of them is what drives the drama – a theme which re-emerges in The Hidden Princess when we learn how Lissy’s Hidden friend Iris lost her own baby son.

I do owe a little of these books to my own mum, though – well, perhaps more to my grandma. I’m not sure if Mum will thank me for sharing this, but lots of babies present a slightly odd and squashy appearance at birth, and Mum was born with both ears squashed flat to the sides of her head.

What did the midwife say to my grandma when she saw the pointed ears?

“It’s a changeling!”

Now there’s an idea…

Wow – I certainly didn’t experience Larkspur’s mother as a flat stereotype, largely because there is so much action in the novel, which would have suffered if her character were more developed. 

Thank you so much to Katy for visiting the Hearthfire today, and for giving us a peek into her thinking process. Mums in YA (and many children’s books) do tend to be absent or deficient, perhaps even more now as parents are less and less able to give their children enough freedom to have adventures. Gone are the halcyon days of the Famous Five, when kids could just roam around the countryside without anyone batting an eyelid!

Stress and anxiety: my top five tips for coping

You may not want to take advice from someone who regularly struggles, but then again, I struggle and I’m still here so maybe I do know something about it 🙂

Here are my top five tips:

  • Don’t neglect yourself. You may be busy and annoyed with yourself for ‘wasting time’ by worrying, fretting or endlessly googling worst-case-scenarios (or maybe that’s just me…), but you still need the time to calm down and look after yourself. Clearly, in fact, you need that time more than when you’re not in an anxiety spiral. A walk, a jog, a hot bath – whatever does it for you, allow yourself that time. I would also recommend the positive to-do list, which we used last summer holidays to great effect. Basically, you make a list of things you want to do (kind of like a bucket list, or a before-a-certain-age list) to remind you when you’re at a loose end or have some spare time/cash to play with.
  • Complementary therapies. As mentioned here before, I love aromatherapy (I have citrus and spice oils on my pulse points to help me focus), but I have also benefited from nice calming herbal tea (chamomile and spiced apple is a favourite) and creative visualisation (pushing worries into a box which you then lock up can be helpful, as well as the old ‘happy place’).
  • Break down your to-do list. Yes, this will make it longer, but it also allows you to cross off a bit at a time of a big job. For example, with a recent writing job, I’ve made a massive grid listing the sub-topics I’m covering with columns for each labelled ‘planned’, ‘started’, ‘drafted’, ‘revised, ‘submitted’, ‘feedback received’ etc. Don’t snigger; it helps and it’s clearly not fully obsessive as it isn’t colour-coded 🙂
  • Use a timer. I generally work in 15 minute chunks, although often I’m resetting the timer for another 15 minutes once I’ve got going. Just committing to 15 minutes at a time really does work.
  • Try a gratitude practice. I know, I know, but it really is very encouraging to think about all the reasons you have to be grateful. I also use this basic positive statement idea to remind myself of past accomplishments when I’m busy freaking out that I can’t do what I’ve set out to do. (Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes an “I know I can do this because…” list is stuck up above my desk, including examples of things I’ve done and should be proud of and nice things people have said/emailed to me like positive comments on my work. I know, but sometimes I need these reminders.)

Writing Life: In Praise of Timers

I don’t think I would get anything done without a timer. When I’m struggling, when I’m in full rabbit-in-the-headlights, why-do-I-have-73-things-on-my-to-do-list mode, the timer is often the only way I can get started. I say to myself, I’ll spend 15 minutes on this job, then the next, and so on. Sometimes, some of my to-do-list jobs can be done in 15 minutes (usually to my complete surprise), but often not. This doesn’t matter. 15 minutes of that job done is 15 minutes more than I would have had done without the timer – not to mention 15 minutes less of “omg what am I going to do?” being quite good for my health.

Some days are ’15 minute days’. The timer goes off all day, as I switch from task to task, chipping away at them. And if I’m being good, some of those 15 minute blocks can be ‘me time’. It’s amazing, but 15 minutes reading time can be a real break. This is something I learnt when exam marking. Very little else has the power to refresh in so short a time.

If this sounds helpful to you, and not like the confessions of a crazy person, you may like to check out the Flylady website, where I learnt the 15 minute rule. As a no-longer-Christian Brit reading her US Christian comments, there are times when I find her style a bit gushy and preachy, but at the same time, her advice is sound, and some of the sentimentality even rings true – for example, I think she’s right that getting your house in order (quite literally – she’s a housework life coach, first and foremost) is a way of loving yourself. I would not be as productive as I am today without having followed her system closely when I was first at home all day with a baby (argh! just realised that was almost fifteen years ago!) Anyway, startling realisations aside, I’ll leave you with the suggestion to give the 15 minute thing a go if you’re struggling to get going. As Flylady says, “you can stand anything for 15 minutes”.

Procrastination

“Never leave your homework til the last minute.” I don’t know how many times in the last ten years I’ve given that particular piece of sage advice, but apparently not enough for it to sink into my own head. Or maybe that’s unfair. It’s not that I don’t start things until the deadline, it’s just that – what? I’ve landed myself with too many things to do? I set myself unreasonable and unrealistic targets? I’m inherently lazy and want to watch tv and not work in the evenings or at weekends?

Procrastination is a curse. We (that’s we teachers, we writers, or we busy people, by the way) know this only too well. And yet.

According to Flylady (life coach par excellence for those struggling with domestic pressures, whether as full time employment or in combination with paid work), procrastination is a form of perfectionism. It’s a crippling kind of perfectionism that whispers “you’ll never do it well enough, so why bother?” I definitely see a grain of truth in this, and recognise the fear that paralyses and prevents any kind of progress.

I’m kind of regretting starting this blog post now, because I don’t have an answer. What I do have is a terrifying to-do list and the certain knowledge that I’m not good enough.

How do you get past that rabbit-in-the-headlights stage of looking at your workload?

Words on Wednesday: Why I’m a Plotter

I could never be a pantser. For me, it’s plotting all the way – and here’s why:

I’m a control freak
I’m not the kind of person who can head out for a walk without knowing where they’re going, and it’s just the same in my writing. I know pantsers often say it’s boring to write when you already know where you’re going, but for me, it’s too risky to head off without a road map.

I like the step-by-step approach
For me, plotting first breaks the writing into two stages: coming up with ideas, and expressing them as clearly as possible. I’m aware of using different skills at the different stages – and of course, the editing that follows is different again.

I’m the anxious type
Having a plan first allows me to check the idea works as a whole before starting, saving me from excess worry.

I’m used to working this way
It’s how I’ve written essays and non-fiction for years, so feels quite natural to me. I’m really not saying this is the way to write – I wouldn’t dare suggest there is a definitive way! The key is knowing what suits you, I think. I have done ‘pantsing’ in the past and just feel that, for me, it wastes too much time and the uncertainty – about the project as a whole, the destination and the route – is stressful rather than exciting to me.

I tend to spend longer plotting than writing the first draft, with character notes on index cards and different degrees of plot outlines. I also like to include word count targets for different sections to keep me on track. Again, that’s something that came from essay and dissertation writing. I’ve always tended to find it hard to write enough words, so using interim word count targets is something I started doing to help me.

Do you plan? Or are you an adrenaline-fuelled pantser?

I wrote this post in September 2011 and am republishing it now as it still holds true. I’ve tried a NaNoWriMo in the meantime, with a bit of a plan but far less than usual and it didn’t work at all. I tried to be more spontaneous and just focus on the messy first draft, I really did, but I’m just meant to be a plotter 🙂 Original commenters: if you’re still reading, do you still feel the same?