Monday, 23 April 2012

From student to teacher by Keren David

Can you teach people to write for children? I think you can. Although I've been a professional writer all my adult life, I don't think I'd have made the shift to writing YA novels without the course I attended at City University.
The course helped me focus on what I wanted to write, and gave me ideas about how. It challenged me to have a go at all sorts of writing, and it gave me a chance to relax and have fun with writing stories as well.

Recommended reading: picture books
Last term I was very flattered to be asked to take over teaching that very same course. I was nervous and excited when I met my first batch of students last January.

Over the course of ten weeks, we talked about every type of children’s writing, from picture books through to YA and crossover novels. I picked a list of recommended reading (that wasn't easy) which included classics and contemporary novels.

We analysed what made them work, talked about structure and word length, ways of planning and plotting and just giving it a go. We talked about getting published, approaching agents and joining helpful groups like SCWBI.  Maurice Lyon, editorial director at Frances Lincoln Children’s Books was kind enough to come and share his wisdom about all aspects of children’s publishing (I learned a few things!).

Recommended reading: chapter books
Every week my students tackled one or two writing exercises. The first week I brought in a selection of interesting objects - a broken bracelet, a wooden fox, a ship in a bottle - and asked them to come up with a story outline. They scratched their heads, they discussed, they wrote and crossed things out. ‘That was hard,’ said one lady. She never came back.

Others did though, and tried their hands at exercises for plot-planning, character building, world-imagining, finding your voice. We looked for stories in our own backgrounds, we rewrote traditional tales. Every week some students found the exercise particularly difficult, others had their breakthrough moment. Some only attended a few classes, others found it had a profound effect on how they thought about their whole lives.

Recommended reading: YA
I didn’t set homework, but suggested that everyone should try and write something by the end of the course to share with the group. The suggested length was 1,500 words. Some wrote picture books, others started YA and MG novels. One started writing a novel while she was doing the course - she’d reached 21,000 words by week ten. Someone else wrote a non-fiction picture book. I have to admit that I was full of pride at the excellence of their creations, even though I wasn’t sure how much I’d contributed to them. My students were so enthusiastic that they’ve set up a writing group to continue their efforts – we’re meeting up for the first time this week.

I learned a lot from teaching the class. It was actually very helpful to discuss areas of children’s writing which I’d never tried myself - fantasy, say, or picture books. I also realised how important it was to step away from formal ‘how to’ teaching, and give students the chance to talk about how writing made them feel vulnerable and nervous. That’s why writing exercises were important. They force you to come up with instant ideas, which often aren’t great - how can they be after ten minutes thought? At first everyone was striving for excellence, for a polished finished product. Then gradually they realised that the whole point of writing in class was to show that getting started doesn’t have to be perfect, it can’t possibly be polished, but it is possible in an hour to go from a blank mind and page to the start of something that might grow. That's what I'm going to try and explain to my students right at the start of term this time. I still feel bad about the lady who never came back.

 If you’re interested in signing up for the course, and you're free on a Tuesday night between 6.30 and 8.30pm, and you can get to Islington, details are here.  I’d love to see you there.


Linda Strachan said...

Great post, Keren. I have always found that talking about writing and teaching others makes you re evaluate your own writing. It is exciting to see what great ideas people have and to watch their joy when they discover they can craft a piece of writing and produce something they never thought they were capable of.

I feel for the lady who never came back but perhaps she just realised it was not for her or it might have surprised her how much hard work goes into writing!

Lel Cheetham said...

I was one of the students on this course and I loved it! Initially it was terrifying having to share work but this proved to be so beneficial. I particularly enjoyed the writing exercises which I had never done before and proved invaluable for trying out different styles of writing. My only criticism would be that the course was too short; we had slowly but surely gelled as a group and the course came to and end! However, we are to continue as a writing group which I am really excited about.

I am currently writing my second novel, which was sparked off by an idea which came up in one of the class exercises.

The last session where Keren read out our 'homework' was fabulous - I too was proud of everyone and astonished by the quality of the writing.

I envy the new students just starting out on this course!

Juliet said...

It sounds inspiring! I wish I lived within reach!

Stroppy Author said...

So, Keren, is this a stand-alone course? Is City Univeristy just the venue - it's not part of a degree course? It sounds as though people enjoy it!

Keren David said...

Just a stand-alone course, certainly not part of a degree. I don't think it's neccessary to sign up for a whole degree course - evening classes are much better value.

Keren David said...

City University isn't just the venue though, it runs a whole programme of short courses.

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Stroppy Author said...

Thank you for clarifying. That sounds great. The universities here (Cambridge) don't run anything like that, which is such a pity. Here it's a degree or nothing (except a few summer things). I think it's really valuable for universities to run short courses that local people can attend. Your students are very lucky!

adele said...

Sounds like a blissful course. And a very good way of finding your feet writing wise. I LOVE courses like this. I went on a poetry course taught by my chum Elizabeth Baines back in the 80s in Manchester and it was completely brilliant. Lucky London writers to have such a course.

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Regards, Mikes