Tagged: writing

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton: February’s Book of the Month in-depth – review and a writing activity adaptable for KS3-5

Age range: YA (12+)

Themes: identity, diversity/ethnicity/race, protest & politics

Genre: fantasy + western 

Narrative style: first-person past tense with plenty of pace and an engaging voice with plenty of ‘sass’ and wit. It’s really easy to root for Amani as she tries desperately to escape her situation by dressing as a boy and entering a shooting competition.

It’s great that she is a skilled shooter and can be admired for that, but she does have weaknesses to engage our sympathy too and her world is all too ready to dismiss her as ‘just’ a girl. With the imaginative combination of the Western setting and the magical 1001 Nights tales as a folkloric backdrop, there is plenty here to get involved in.


Using the opening page, which is available to read on the Guardian website, here is a writing-focused task which can be adapted for years from KS3 to 5:

Paste the opening page into the centre of an A3 page.

Ask students to examine the opening for the different jobs that it is fulfilling. They could highlight sentences in different colours to show this. For example, looking at information that helps:

  • establish setting
  • establish character

This can be further complicated by labelling the techniques used.

A more interesting/complex exercise for older/more advanced students might explore how Amani’s voice is created using a combination of words and phrases (lexis/register) and sentence structure (syntax), further considering how the information chosen to be provided to the reader through Amani helps characterise her by showing her attitudes to those topics. Again, different colour highlighters could be used for lexical vs syntactical techniques with the labels and subject-based comments written on around the text.

This analytical work can then feed into writing of the students’ own, where they introduce a character/setting/situation with attention to the same issues. A scenario could be provided for them, or they could be invited to come up with their own. Some possibilities include:

  • An already-known character from a fairytale/folktale but not the central character (e.g. telling Red Riding Hood from the Huntsman’s perspective)
  • An ‘outsider’ character in a dangerous situation
  • A young person readying themselves to do something difficult (a test, delivering some difficult news, telling a friend a tough secret)

Recommendations: Writing/Poetry as a hobby in YA

To go with the creativity buzzzing through this week’s reading recs on the slide, here are three great titles that feature characters who enjoy writing as a pastime in YA novels:

Haunt Me, Liz Kessler

In this beautifully-written dual-narrative romance, writing is a key thing joining the two together. Joe wakes up to find his family moving out and no-one can see or hear him… Then another family moves in and gradually Erin discovers Joe’s presence.

A highly unusual premise, which works really well and has Liz Kessler’s trademark love of the sea evident.

Apple and Rain, Sarah Crossan

This beautiful family drama features a teacher who introduces Apple to writing and to poetry in particular as a way of helping her deal with the messiness of her life and her emotions. Poor Apple has to cope with a somewhat chaotic home life due to the actions of her mother – she left her with Nana eleven years ago, to pursue an acting career. Now she’s back, Apple thinks everything will be better, as Mum’s a lot more fun that strict old Nana.

The Sky Is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson

In this lyrical, poetic book, main character Lennie can barely contain her urge to write, scribbling on napkins and scraps of paper. This may have been the first YA novel in which I read teen poetry that felt fresh and plausible as teen, and yet didn’t make me cringe (but then the author is a poet as well as a novelist…). In the story, writing is used as emotional expression and therapy and exists already for Lennie before the story begins – it’s a clear part of her identity. The main thrust of the story is Lennie’s rebuilding of her life after her sister’s death – a plot which I personally found very realistically handled, as Lennie has ups and downs and also does other things (including considering romance) and has guilt about doing other things. It’s emotionally complex and messy, just as grief actually is.

Writer’s Wednesday: A ‘Filling the Well’ Trip – The British Library’s Harry Potter Exhibition

Postcard with the poster image from the exhibition – now in my lovely organiser as a memory of my fab day

A few weeks ago, I went with my younger daughter to the marvellous British Library’s Harry Potter exhibition, and it was such an inspiration! I’ve always been a fan of our folkloric and mystical heritage, and that is what this exhibition celebrates – the ideas, stories and rich mythical background on which Rowling draws in her world.

It was an absolute delight to take my 14 yr old HP fan around and enjoy her amazement at illuminated medieval texts, pre-Christian oracle bones (although it’s really thanks to Abi Elphinstone’s Dream Snatcher series that she was excited to see those!) and artwork from Jim Kay (and J.K herself – who knew that she could draw as well?!).

A particular joy as a writer was to also get to see some of the early drafts of the texts. There are sections with different character names, clearly different outcomes, bits with Rowling’s and her editor’s notes on – all a great treat to get to see. I definitely felt refreshed and inspired as a result – a brilliant example of ‘filling the well‘, as Julia Cameron calls it in her seminal work ‘The Artist’s Way’.

As a writer, it was particularly fantastic to see the wealth of ideas referenced in a much-beloved series all drawn together in one place, and to see so many families in wonderment over the fact that so much of that series came from existing ideas. So many of the adults in those display rooms, never mind the children, were exclaiming over not having realised that this or that was not invented by Rowling but already existed as an idea in the world before the books. There was so much respect for Rowling’s weaving together of bits of folklore, astronomy, alchemy and so on – no-one (as one might fear) appeared to feel cheated that it wasn’t ‘truly’ made up, but combined. The whole thing was, to me, a glorious celebration of creativity as the art of re-combination: putting things together in new ways. There really is nothing new in the world.

All in all, it was a great day out, and a wonderful affirmation of the creative imagination.

Stationery Addict: Organiser Tips

OK, I’ve titled this post organiser tips, but really I’m just showing you my favourite ever bit of stationery/planning tool: my gorgeous personalised planner from Cordwain HIggler. This was a birthday present and I’ve had it for three and a half years now and it’s showing no signs of wear, although it’s popped into my bag on a daily basis.

I’ve loved a filofax-type format for a long time because of the flexibility. Notebooks frustrate me, because you can spoil them (yes, my perfectionism might sometimes be a bit of a problem). In this (and my previous filofax, now housing ‘archive material’), I’ve had various different setups over the years and it’s fine to rearrange at intervals without any crossings out or tearing out of pages. Perfect!

A couple of years ago, I noticed that standard size postcards (such as those used promotionally by publishers, for example) fit perfectly in my organiser (which is ‘personal’ size, btw). I already had the special Filofax hole punch, for printing my own inserts (business is booming on Etsy for designers of such things; I’ve had some beauties over the years). So now, events such as YALC tend to lead to a refresh of my organiser dividers. In case you’re wondering, after trial and error, I can confirm that the easiest way to make them into dividers is to purchase repositionable tabs for folders, rather than force yourself to cut tabs into the side of the postcards…

I think this flexibility and ability to be creative inside also negate the possible criticism some have of having a permanent organiser instead of an array of notebooks – the boredom of always having the same cover. You can be always changing it up inside. And these days, with companies like Kikki K (and an Etsy industry) practically dedicated to planner design and decoration with pre-printed inserts, stickers, cute dividers and so on, it’s very easy to mix it up and make it attractive. I’ve gone for something which cheers me up and genuinely gives me pleasure to look at and use with very little effort to set up, but if your craft skills are better, you can make good use of scrapbooking papers for example and really create something personalised.

So, if you need a notebook by your side and, like me, are frustrated by having ‘ruined’ too many pretties, why not try an organiser?

Blog Tour: Flexing Your Creative Muscle with Maz Evans

Today, I’ve got Maz Evans here as part of her Who Let the Gods Out blog tour (see below for more on the fab Greek-mythology-based romp for 9+)

As our heartfelt New Year promises to nurture physical muscles languish at the bottom of a selection box, I propose that now is a good time to turn our attention to a different muscle – our creativity.

No, I’m not high on my gluten-free, alkaline, low-GI protein smoothie – creativity is a muscle like any other. Use it often and it will become more powerful. Let it waste and no amount of supportive underwear can help it.

Think about it. At some point in your life, maybe you’ve learned to play an instrument or taken up a sport? You weren’t born with these skills. You may have had some natural ability, but in order to fully realise it, you had to practice. The more you play the violin, the less your neighbours want to move. The more you practise your penalty shoot-outs, the fewer windows needed replacing. The more creative you are, the more creative you become.

When I run my Story Stew workshops, I always start by asking everyone if they believe themselves to be a creative, or non-creative person. Various hands go up – as does a sigh of disbelief when I tell them there is no such thing as a non-creative person. But you have to be creative to get through a day on planet Earth. You solve problems – creative. You tell stories – creative. You persuade people to do things for you – creative. You probably tell at least one lie – wrong, but creative.

Next time you’re writing a story, force your creativity to work harder. If you’re writing about a man who wants a dog, why not make him a woman? And she’s a hippo. And she actually wants a parsnip. But she lives on Jupiter where no parsnips will grow. And unless she delivers a parsnip trifle by 3pm, the Lesser-Spotted Krinkenshlob will eat her favourite orange stripy hat…

As demonstrated, you may come up with a load of rubbish. Sometimes your first idea is your best. But somewhere in the mental seed-tray, an idea might start to germinate. At the very least, now your brain is warmed up, you will make your original idea more inventive. Your brain is busy and looking for an easy solution – make it work harder.

So this February, resolve to tone up your creativity and whip your ideas into shape.

Because let’s be honest. It’s got to leave a better taste than this smoothie…

@MaryAliceEvans

Maz Evans runs creative writing workshops for all ages. For more info visit www.maz.world.

Elliot’s mum is ill and his home is under threat, but a shooting star crashes to earth and changes his life forever. The star is Virgo – a young Zodiac goddess on a mission. But the pair accidentally release Thanatos, a wicked death daemon imprisoned beneath Stonehenge, and must then turn to the old Olympian gods for help. After centuries of cushy retirement on earth, are Zeus and his crew up to the task of saving the world – and solving Elliot’s problems too?

Who Let the Gods Out is Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month for February and is out now from Chicken House.

 

Guest Post from Emma Carroll, author of Strange Star: Why Gothic Fiction Is Still Relevant Today

Today I’m very pleased to welcome Emma Carroll to the Hearthfire. She’s here for the last stop on her blog tour for the fabulously gothic middle grade novel Strange Star, inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and highly recommended.

It could be the blurb for a YA novel: a group of friends on holiday, a thunderstorm, a night in with drinks, ghost stories, the simmering tension of who fancies who.

It also describes one of the most famous gatherings in literary history. When Mary Shelley (then Godwin) stayed at the Villa Diodati with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley in June 1816, the idea for ‘Frankenstein’ was conceived- that’s one theory, anyway. There are many others- she was inspired by her mother’s death, the loss of her own daughter, a dream where she brought her dead baby back to life, the frustration of being fiercely intelligent in a male-dominated world, jealousy. Such a rich mix of ‘possibles’ only adds to her allure.

As part of the Stoke Newington Festival in June, I did a panel event to mark the 200-year anniversary of that portentous night in 1816. Though there wasn’t a thunderstorm, the venue- a beautiful Elizabethan church- was suitably gothic. Grass grew waist- deep in the graveyard outside. Inside, was all black beams and carved wood seats and walls pock-marked with age. There were no lights, only candles. It was perfect.

The panel -Sally Gardner (Tinder, The Door That Led To Where), Eleanor Wassenburg (Foxlowe), Karen Lee Street (Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster), and I- were writers whose work is gothic-influenced.  Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent) was also meant to join us, but sadly was sick. (cue: gothic ‘thwarted dreams’ moment as my fangirling hopes were dashed!) Chaired by journalist, critic and unabashed ‘Frankenstein’ fan Suzy Feay, we discussed Shelley’s inspirations and how the gothic still shapes writing today.

And is it still a relevant genre, we pondered? Was it not all red drapes and swooning ladies in nightgowns? Had the gothic not become pastiche?

No, in short.

Any genre that gives voice to a minority will always have a place. In many ways the gothic is a code, a language, a metaphor if you will, for what it is to be vulnerable. Writers like Angela Carter recognised its overtly feminist, post-modern narrative. Monsters aren’t always truly evil; victims aren’t always weak. There are challenges, desires, emotions- all of which feel, on first reading, to be familiar story tropes, yet on closer consideration speak of anguish in a way that might otherwise not be heard.

For me, Shelley’s masterpiece does exactly this. Who the true monster is, isn’t quite clear. Many critics say the disfigured creation rejected by its ‘father’ represents Shelley herself. Her appearance was the means by which others judged her, so much so that ‘Frankenstein’ was initially published under Percy Shelley’s name. She took inspiration from the growing Abolition movement. She was aware of the limitations imposed by race and gender. Her relationship with her father was strained, cool, her marriage troubled by jealousies. She craved acceptance and belonging, just as her monster does.

Shelley’s use of gothic allows her to speak at a time in history when society wasn’t listening. Two hundred years on, we still judge by colour and gender. In these post-Brexit times, we’re nervous of outsiders, people who don’t quite ‘fit’.

Gothic fiction gives dissenters a voice.

Emma is a former English teacher whose middle grade novels either fall into the historical genre or have a strong link to the past. She’s written about circuses, fairies and ghosts and all focus on children having a difficult time. She is published by Faber & Faber in the UK.

URTS blog tour: Where I Write by Louise Gornall, author of Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Rose3I am so excited to have the fabulous Louise Gornall, author of the equally fabulous Under Rose-Tainted Skies here today (and it’s the first day of my summer holiday today – how symbolically freedom-celebrating is that?). If you haven’t heard of this book, (where have you been?) there is some info at the end of the post but it is high on my recommended list for this summer and has been out about a week now so – you know what to do. Anyway, here is the lovely Louise herself, to tell you a bit about her writing – specifically, where she writes:


Louise GornallGood morning, guys! Thanks for having me over. Of all the questions I’m asked about writing, ‘where do you write?’ has to be my favourite, simply because the answer is always changing.

Right now, as I write this, I’m sat on a deck, surrounded by hills, bordered by trees and endless green fields. I’m in the Lake District, a short walk away from the Beatrix Potter museum, with five of my best friends — they’re squeeing and splashing around in a hot tub. I’m going to join them in a second, but I just wanted to jot down some ideas about my new book that I had last night, and I really wanted to cross a couple of things off my to-do list before we leave tomorrow and my bank holiday is snatched away by family fun times. That’s not sarcasm. In my village there is a parade and a fair and, beside Christmas, it’s probably the best day of the year here.

Where will I write tomorrow? I think maybe out in the garden. We’re having some uncharacteristically warm weather in the North West, and you guys know how it is over here, you gotta catch it before it disappears and you start seeing Christmas in September. But if it is too cold, I’ll sit on scatter cushions, on the floor, in a small space between my bed and bookshelf. I do have a desk, but I can never seem to get comfy at it, and if I’m not comfy, I will forever be distracted and write nothing.

I guess I can pretty much write anywhere, too. I don’t really need a computer as I draft on my phone with Google Docs. Ooh! And in bed. I like writing in bed. You know when it goes super quiet and dark, and your mind starts thinking of all the story things? I love it when that happens — and I have my phone right beside me, so I can tap out a few lines of thought before I go to sleep.


Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Thanks, Louise, it’s always so interesting to hear people’s actual writing practices. So you don’t need just the right chair in just the right place? I love the idea of you writing outside, surrounded by friends – sounds great (if a little noisy/distracting for me… I’m not tied to place either, but Must Have Quiet – via headphones and white noise/instrumental music if necessary).

Here’s how Goodreads summarises the novel:

Norah has agoraphobia and OCD. When groceries are left on the porch, she can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. He’s sweet and funny, and he just caught her fishing for groceries. Because of course he did.

Norah can’t leave the house, but can she let someone in? As their friendship grows deeper, Norah realizes Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can lie on the front lawn and look up at the stars. One who isn’t so screwed up.

I’ll be reviewing this one properly soon, but here are my initial thoughts on finishing:

Fabulous account of agoraphobic teen with OCD – don’t think I’ve ever seen anxious thoughts so perfectly delineated. Everyone with an anxiety disorder will want their friends to read this to help them understand. But of course, this is no ‘handbook on OCD’ – it’s a story first and foremost, and above all, I enjoyed following Norah’s tale as she deals with the boy next door and his intrusion into her (extremely limited) world. I’ll be recommending this one a lot.


URTS blog tourThank you so much to Louise for visiting. Tomorrow, she’ll be at Escapism From Reality. She can be found online on Twitter and at her website.

Thanks also to Chicken House for providing a review copy and the fabulous Nina Douglas for tour organisation.

 

UKYA Extravaganza Blog Tour: Q&A with Alan Gibbons

UKYA extravaganzaAs you may know, there is a very special event taking place on the last day of this month: the UKYA extravaganza, with 35 UK authors of YA books at Waterstones Birmingham. Tickets sold out within 24 hours, and it looks like this will be the first of many, rather than a one-off event. Today the blog tour stops here, with Alan Gibbons answering a few questions about writing, the UKYA phenomenon and reading.

Gibbons booksAlan’s books cover a range of important and interesting topics. They are often contemporary novels, focusing on difficulties that teens and children face. He has written about gun crime (Raining Fire), hate crimes (Hate), domestic violence (The Edge), bullying and suicide (Hold On) and racial tension (Caught in the Crossfire, An Act of Love) as well as football (Total Football series), mythology and folklore (Shadow of the Minotaur, Night Hunger). With all of Alan’s books that I have read, there is a very real and very human story at the heart that brings the issue into focus. His writing is issues-led, but never preachy or didactic.

What do you think is special about UKYA? Why does it deserve celebrating/ promoting?

I think any initiative that keeps young people reading through the teenage years is to be supported. This crossroads between childhood and adulthood can often be turbulent, thrilling, troubling and monstrously exhausting. It was for me! The genre barely existed until landmark books such as S E Hinton’s The Outsiders, Robert Cormier’s Chocolate War and Heroes and Robert Swindells’ Brother in the Land and Stone Cold blazed a trail. Now it attracts some of the most talented writers around. An event that brings lots of these authors together with their readers is a terrific idea.

You obviously believe in the importance of diverse books. What advice do you have for writers who are hesitant about writing characters who are from different cultures from themselves?

I suppose I just feel that the variety of human experience should find its way into literature. Writers who have a range of black and Asian, male and female, gay and straight characters aren’t following an agenda or pushing ‘political correctness.’ They are reflecting their society. They are being human. Anyone who chooses not to do this is surely pushing an alternative agenda.

I would never be so arrogant as to give other writers advice. Personally, I think I have nothing to lose by walking around in somebody else’s skin. Whatever details of skin colour, gender or sexual orientation, we are all brothers and sisters and have far more in common than we have difference. I just write out of human solidarity and that means having that little bit of courage to stray into the odd avenue I have not trodden myself, to imagine another person’s circumstances and responses. Hey, if I get it wrong I can apologise in the best way possible, do it better in the next book I write. Defensiveness is the enemy of literature and artistic creation.

I’m also aware of your tireless library campaigning. Do you see this as part of your role as an author, like school visits?

Absolutely. I am a teacher-writer-activist. Each of those elements is as essential as the others. What this government is doing is wrong, the greatest act of cultural vandalism carried out in this country since World War Two. How could we writers step aside and let the philistines get away with book burning by proxy without raising howls of protest?

Can you tell us something about what you’re working on at the moment?

My next novel is about political and personal betrayal, focussing on the son of a Member of Parliament and something his father did in public life that impacts disastrously on the family. It was planned to be called You Took My Son, but may morph into End Game because my publishers prefer the second title. I am just happy for it to see the light of day in the spring. I am now working on a book about abduction and abuse for 2016.

How do you work? Do you plan in depth? How do you decide what your topic will be? Does the story come first, the characters or is that not at all how it works?

I was an angry young man. Now I am an angry man in late middle age. Pretty soon I will be an angry old man. I usually start with something in the news that either upsets me, confuses me, perturbs me or inspires me. From that, the characters start to emerge, essentially how they respond to crisis. I would love to be good at planning, but I am terrible. I usually get an ending, a few ‘scenes’ in the middle and a vague sense of where it is going then start tapping away at my laptop. I feel my way through the text instinctively and rather chaotically, I’m afraid.

Thank you, Alan, for that insight into your work. I look forward to seeing you in Birmingham!

In the meantime, if you fancy a well-written thriller set very firmly in the real world, grab one of Alan’s books.

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