Saturday, 7 March 2015

And I'm Out The Other Side...

          ...Of World Book Day, that is - or rather, the week it takes
Guess which Urban Myth I told...
place in.

          Over ten days, I went into three schools. I know some writers do much more, but these three visits involved long drives, overnight stays - and I get old, I get old. It was enough for me.
          The first school was Arthur Mellow's Collegiate, near Peterborough. So that was a 200 mile drive and an overnight stay. In a chilly B&B, which wasn't quite as freezing as the one I stayed in during December, but still far from comfortable. B&B owners seem to think that England is a suburb of Melbourne, where December through to March is the hottest time of the year.
          I spent the entire day at Arthur Mellows working with the same group of 'gifted and talented' pupils, presenting a Creative Writing Workshop. It's unusual, in my experience, for a school to be as bold as this, and I applaud it.
          First I told the group a short story, an Urban Folktale.
          Then I showed them how the suspense in that story was created, that it's not so much what happens in a story that creates the interest, but largely down to the way it's told. It doesn't matter, in fact, whether a story is about someone's life being endangered by a serial killer, or an old teddy-bear trying to find his lost owner - the story will follow the same pattern, and whether the story works or not will largely depend on how it follows that pattern.
          I gave them copies of the story I told them, and had them identify the 'building blocks' of the story. Then I set them the task of inventing their own story, in brief outline. It could be any kind of story - provided it included all the building-blocks we'd looked at. In this way, I hoped to get them to invent a complete story, with a satisfactory ending - and not, as so often happens, to charge off into their first idea, and then be dissatisfied and disappointed because they couldn't find an ending.
          They worked on their stories for an hour, while I went round finding out about them. There was an age-range from 11/12 to 14/15, and a wide range of subjects. I encouraged them all to start thinking about their ending. Who did they want to 'win'? Was it to end happily or sadly? With others, I discussed re-arranging their story's elements, to achieve a better structure.
          In the hour immediately before lunch, we held a 'writer's surgery' where they heard each other's stories - which were wonderfully varied and imaginative - and gave each other feedback. How well had the building blocks been handled? What worked well about the story? What could be improved?
          In the afternoon, we took a look at building character, and setting scene. I enjoyed the day enormously.  One student wrote on her feedbac form (and entirely without coercion from me, as I'd left my knuckledusters at home): 'I want to be an author when I’m older and workshops like this one are inspiring and helpful. THANK YOU!'

The Sterkarm Handshake
          At Cardinal Griffin, I've just been appointed their 'Patron of Reading,' and this was a first visit, a 'getting to know you' day. I saw several classes, for an hour each time, and told them something of my life, and about the ideas and research behind my book, The Sterkarm Handshake.
          And there was cake for lunch - baked by the lovely librarian, Jacqueline Biddle. Some senior students came along to join us - but had all eaten their packed lunches at break!
          It was a fun day, with some very acute questions from the students, and I look forward to working with Griffin again.
          Griffin was a mere hour's drive from home - but good lord, the traffic! At roughly 3-45pm, the traffic on Birmingham's car-park (the M6) was so horrendous that I pulled off and drove home through the urban sprawl of the Black Country, where, if you can credit it, the roads were quieter, and I was able to get out of second gear.
          A pit-stop at home that night, and then next day I set out for Salisbury and my B&B.
          I thought I was never going to get there. I drove and drove and drove, but the roads seemed to keep unwinding on an endless spool. I think I drove, that day, on every kind of road that exists in the UK (with the possible exception of the roads on the Isle of Mull and the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, whose unique roads sometimes take a break and disappear from view altogether.)
          But after three hours and 120 miles (only 120? It felt like much more) I arrived at my B&B, which was on a farm, Swaynes Firs Farm. There were ornamental ducks, a very warm welcome from the charming landlord, and a good breakfast the next morning.
          I was away at 7-30 am, to drive to the school, Godolphin, an independent girls' boarding school, founded in 1726. I spent the
morning in the Prep school, where first I told the girls about myself in assembly - and then had a hugely enjoyable time until about half eleven.
          First, I read my books, The Runaway Chapati, and How The Bear Lost His Tail, to the youngest. They chanted out the choruses, were afraid for the chapati, and sorry for the bear, and a good time was had by all.
          Then I used the wonderful StoryWorld cards by John and Caitlin Matthews. Each card has a very detailed and beautiful picture on it, with questions to prompt ideas. The children were split into groups, and I gave each group a character card. When they'd had a moment to think about it, I gave them another card,
One of the StoryWorld cards
which featured a place or an object. I asked them to find the link between their character and the subject of the new card.

          If you want to see the power of story in action, use these cards. We tell stories about everything, we think in stories, we teach with stories - and the excitement and glee of the children as they spot some detail in the card and 'discover' some new twist in their story, is beautiful to see. And I, as ever, was amazed and delighted by the ideas they came up with - things I would never have thought of, and never expected.
          I gave them a little guidance - asked them to think about their endings.
          At 11-30, I was fetched to the Senior School and there, immediately before lunch, I began the Creative Writing Workshop by telling, and breaking down, an Urban Myth. After lunch (which was very good) the girls divided into two groups and worked on their own stories. Again, I went round, seeing as many as I could, advising them to think about what kind of ending they wanted, so they knew where their story was heading.
          At the end of the afternoon, we had a writers' surgery - all gathered in the lovely old school hall. We dragged chairs and benches into a big circle, and I grabbed the headmaster's throne.
         The girls' teacher feared that they might be hesitant to criticise each other's work, and there'd be nothing but praise - but the girls had not only come up with very different stories - all complete with endings which ranged from happy to doom-laden - but gave each other excellent feedback on what had worked, and what was confusing, and what defied belief.
          I stressed that this kind of criticism is an ordinary part of a writer's working life - that if someone said their story wasn't believable, they shouldn't be crushed. It simply meant that you rewrote the story, changing details, until it was believable.
          And then I was out the door for a three hour drive home. After two hours, stopped at a Little Chef, for a coffee and bacon and eggs. The glamorous writer's life.
          I wouldn't change it, though.

And have you guessed what the Urban Myth was yet?

 Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Pato Garza


madwippitt said...

What a fab job you do at schools, spreading a bit of inspiration around ... we never had anything like this at school, I am quite green with envy. The dog story ... could it be the Three Wippitteers? Or The Incredible Wippitt? A Hundred and One Wippitts? The House at Wippitt Corner? The Old Wippitt Shop? Or even possibly Now We Are Wippitts? So much choice ... Can we have a clue please?

Joan Lennon said...

Fabulous - and exhausting even just to read about, especially with all that driving - thank goodness you're a ninja driver and therefore able to stay awake!

Hmmm, The Boy who Cried Wippit? Dick Whippington's Wippit? Old Possum's Book of Wippits?

Susan Price said...

Thank you, both - but no whippets were harmed in the telling of this story.
Doberman. It's a doberman. There's your clue.

madwippitt said...

Ah! It's that classic retelling of Stephenson's Dr Whippet and Mr Dobermann!

Jenny Alexander said...

Impressive schedule! I did a workshop for a group of home educated children a mile up the rod and another at an art gallery across the border in Devon. Much less well paid than school visits but, for me, much less stressful.

Susan Price said...

Jenny, I bet your workshops were wonderful. I'm thinking of using your 'torn up magazines' workshop at my next workshop which isn't, thank goodness, until the end of April.
And Madwippit - yes! You've got it - Dr. Whippet and Mr Doberman!

Sue Purkiss said...


Susan Price said...

Thank you, Sue!

Katherine Roberts said...

Am most impressed by your energy! I have some of those Story World cards, but never done a workshop with them... would love to see them in use.

Susan Price said...

I've used the StoryWorld cards a couple of times for workshops now, and they have the most amazing effect. Children lose all their shyness - they get so excited about something they've spotted in the depths of a card. Their faces light up as they suddenly see a connection they can make.