Thursday 19 December 2013

How to Teach A Guardian Masterclass - Lucy Coats

Next July I shall have been working in the world of children's books, in one guise or another, for thirty-one years.  I've been an editor, a bookseller, a journalist and a writer. What I'd never been before last September (in any formal way) was a teacher of adults, but by agreeing to tutor a Guardian Masterclass on how to write for children, I became one.

My first book was published twenty-two years ago, and since then I've written a good many more. Could I teach others how to do it, though? Is how to write for children even teachable?  I've always been one who says that there are no rules for writing - only what works. Preparing for a whole day workshop taught me otherwise.  There are rules - the trick is how each individual chooses to interpret them. Thinking about how to get over the salient points of how to plot, write dialogue, create convincing characters and build credible worlds, plan story arcs, show not tell and all the other tricks of the writing trade, made me really focus in on what makes a children's book great instead of ordinary. It also made me realise how much I have actually learned in all those writing years (thankfully, quite a lot, in case you were wondering).

Until I started my first day of teaching, though, I had no idea if what I planned to say was going to be at all useful to anyone else.  I also didn't know what kind of teacher I was going to be.  Before that initial September morning, I prayed to all the gods of Story that I would be the flame-lighting kind, not the damp squib sort, and my prayer seems to have worked.  After three Masterclasses, the feedback has all been positive, and I have found in myself a surprising passion for imparting the writing trade I love to everyone from grandfathers to graphic designers.  (I've also loved working with my fellow writer, Michelle Lovric, who has kindly agreed to be my regular guest author, and whose incisive brilliance in pinning down plot flaws and age-inappropriateness during the group writing exercises fills me with awe.)

The wide spread of professions and ages who signed up to be taught surprised me. Their enthusiasm heartened me. What saddened and slightly depressed me, though, was that almost none had read any children's book later than Roald Dahl, even the ones who had children of their own. They'd just about heard of Philip Pullman, because of the film of his book, but they had no idea that The Hunger Games was a book first. None of them had even heard of Meg Rosoff or Patrick Ness, or Marcus Sedgwick or Sally Gardner, even though they are some of the biggest names in UK children's books right now, and they had no idea that Malorie Blackman is our present Children's Laureate.  Still, as with any class, you work with what you have - and they've all gone away with a long list of current books to look out for.  I hope at least some will use it to their advantage, along with my advice to read, read, read - the ones who really want to be writers, anyway. Because that was another surprising thing I discovered.  Not everyone who comes to a Guardian Masterclass actually wants to go away and write a book. Some are just there for the experience, and I think that's fine. As long as everyone enjoys themselves and takes away a bit of useful knowledge at the end of the day, I've done my job.

So, what are the five most important things I've learned from my Guardian Masterclass teaching experience?
First, that proper preparation is a key element to everyone's enjoyment, including mine.
Second, that a PowerPoint presentation is a thing of wonder, and, more practically, breaks up the talking bits.
Third, that writing exercises are a powerful tool for building confidence.
Fourth, that not everyone will ask questions, so having extra material to fill in unexpected gaps is good.
Fifth, that, as ever, chocolate is the way to a writing Masterclass's heart.

I've finished teaching the current Guardian Masterclass workshops for this year, but am delighted to say that the wonderful Nosy Crow team, headed by Kate Wilson, will be joining me next February for a whole weekend of children's writing and publishing, which will provide what we hope will be a fantastic opportunity to see both sides of the industry.  Personally, I can't wait to do more teaching - and to be amazed at the unique ideas even people with no confidence in their own creative capabilities can come up with in a very short space of time, given just a spoonful of encouragement (and, of course, a good dose of chocolate).

Lucy's new picture book, Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party is coming soon from Nosy Crow!
Bear's Best Friend, is published by Bloomsbury "A charming story about the magic of friendship which may bring a tear to your eye" Parents in Touch "The language is a joy…thoughtful and enjoyable" Armadillo Magazine. "Coats's ebullient, sympathetic story is perfectly matched by Sarah Dyer's warm and witty illustrations." The Times   
Her latest series for 7-9s, Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books. 
Lucy's Website
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Lucy's Scribble City Central Blog (A UK Top 10 Children's Literature Blog)
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Sue Purkiss said...

Sounds great, Lucy! I teach a writing class in the community here, and none of my students want to have a book published (well, apart from the one we're going to self-publish with a collection of their writing.) They just thoroughly enjoy writing, and I love hearing what they come up with, week after week.

Lucy Coats said...

Thanks, Sue. I do hope that some of the students who come to the February weekend will be serious about trying to break into writing, though. With such a small group (15ish), it'll mean a day of unparalleled access to a team of proper movers and shakers in the publishing industry on the Sunday. I think there may have to be a LOT of chocolate on the Saturday to prepare them!

Mary Hoffman said...

These tips are very useful, since I will be joining Lucy at the Nosy Crow weekend, teaching worldbuilding.

Joan Lennon said...

With your good work, maybe the next time I'm in a school the kids won't ask "Are you Roald Dahl"! I'd be happy to be mistaken for someone more recent. And alive.

michelle lovric said...

Lucy is being far too modest! The course she has devised is wonderfully thorough, realistic and yet inspirational. I enjoy being the magician's assistant when the magician is so on top of her game. One of the things we do is exchange endless enthusiastic adlibs about wonderful current children's books on whatever subject/era/issue that interests the individual students. We are like doctors dispensing prescriptions. We are constantly bringing home the fact that if you aren't reading current children's books, then you cannot really be writing them. The students love the technical exercises and we see some excellent work when they warm up. And yes, the chocolate definitely helps!

Lucy Coats said...


Nick Green said...

It amazes me that the students were so ignorant of modern writers. What were they thinking of? It's like wanting to train as a footballer when you don't even watch football.

Stroppy Author said...

I agree with Nick. How bizarre. Perhaps they just think it sounds like a nice idea - or have they been writing for a while (without reading)?

DavidKThorpe said...

I agree with Nick too - quite astonishing. It's kind of like trying to launch a new product without doing any market research, let alone missing out on all the fantastic books that are being published and the chance to study how other writers achieve their results.