Today, a guest blog from Pauline Francis - many thanks, Pauline!
I’ve just finished a year as a Writer-in-Residence and want to share some of the pain and pleasure (mostly pleasure). It was my first residency - and a learning curve for me as well as the students. I forgot to take my camera on the day, but this is me at home afterwards.
The Residency was at a mixed secondary international college in Hertfordshire, which I visit regularly as a YA author, working with the English and History Faculties as well as the library.
To improve the creative writing skills of the participants, publish an anthology of their work and raise the awareness of creative writing generally.
I live only ten minutes’ walk from the school, so I was able to offer ‘value added’ such as parents’ evenings, book clubs, writing ‘surgeries’ and one memorable World Book Night for the boarders, with cocoa and biscuits, reading from our favourite books (this is a state school that takes boarders from across the world, which made this writing project particularly interesting).
The college wanted to choose the participating students through a Short Story competition launched at the school’s first World Literature Festival, which included the opening of a new library wing by Kevin Crossley-Holland. He chose the theme for the competition, ‘Where is Home?’ So the residency had a high profile from the beginning.
I judged the stories and chose ten pupils of mixed ages and genders to use those stories for the residency programme, choosing them for potential as well as actual skill, as we all know that sometimes a germ of a good idea is worth more than perfect writing.
We met as a group twice a term and 2-3 times a term individually, in the library, in lesson time.
How to begin?
I wanted our time together to be different from the students’ lessons. I had plenty of ideas about what makes a good short story and I knew that I’d incorporate them into the sessions; but I wanted to make an impact in the first group session. The students were keen but nervous. I was keen but nervous.
Starting the residency was as difficult as starting a new novel!
How could I break the ice? I hadn’t been keen on the idea of a competition for entry and students already thought their stories were good because they’d worked on them for weeks ….
They had to look at my published book and think: if she can do it, so can I.
I decided to expose myself….I took along some old drafts of my novels and compared them to the published versions. There’s an example below. Students said they were surprised (they were probably too polite to say shocked) by my earlier drafts; but it engaged them.
This is an example of a first draft from Raven Queen, when I was struggling to describe the childhood home of Lady Jane Grey (I find descriptions difficult):
“I lived at Bradgate House, a house built by my father’s father, Thomas Grey, who died when I was two years old. He used to boast that the forest beyond – Charnwood
Forest- was big and that he had laid water pipes from the
stream to the house. The town of
was about five miles to the east.” Leicester
(Jane is the narrator)
This is the published version:
“Visitors usually gasp with pleasure when they first arrive. It is thought to be one of the finest houses in Leicestershire; but Ned gazed past its red brick towers, past its gardens soon to be brimming with fruit and blossom, past the stream which fed water pipes to the kitchen – to the darkening trees beyond.
‘I like the forest best at dusk when birds cloud the sky,’ he said.”
(Jane is still the narrator but the house is seen through a visitor’s eye and linked to an emotion)
The hard work began. Students had to justify every word, every character, every time span, every conflict and every piece of dialogue. They drafted and re-drafted week after week, which they did with amazing cheerfulness. Only one student refused to make any more changes to her story after the first term. Fair enough! Her story was wonderful from the beginning and we discussed short stories in general in our time together.
During the last term, students had to read their stories to me, something that they found very difficult; but it did produce the final burst of creativity needed to polish every story to perfection.
And so we had our stories: heart-breaking, uplifting, depressing and amusing. There were stories of homecomings and leavings set in Africa,
Cyprus and Germany,
and of lost souls searching for a home after sudden deaths. Every one made me
My husband edited. The students wrote author bios and ‘Where is Home?’ was published in-house and sold for charity at a celebratory tea during the following year’s literary festival.
It was an amazing and bonding experience for us all.
The lowlights ….
- The programme was run though the library and restricted to a few students, although others had general access to me in the lunch hours.
- I had little or no contact with the staff and other Faculties and did no work with them on any other literacy activities.
- I disliked choosing through a competition.
- I could not contact the students directly through email, which slowed down the re-drafting.
- All meetings were arranged through a member of the library staff, which takes more time, however efficiently it is done.
- I forgot my camera for the final session.
and the highlights….
- The students gained in confidence generally and this improved their English (some had English as a second language). They also read more.
- They bonded as a group and met to read aloud sometimes (especially the boarders).
- Other students became interested and arranged ‘Writing Surgery’ appointments.
- Parents entered the writing competition (although they were not included in the programme) and this led to increased interest in the library.
- Students (not just those on the programme) entered other local and national writing competitions.
- Students on the programme shared their experience during English lessons.
- Students blogged/tweeted about their experience.
- The look of pride on the writers’ faces when they saw their work in print.
I’d love to hear other writers’ experiences of any residencies they’ve done – short or long. For me, it was the highlight of my writing career. I’ve asked the students to keep their first drafts as I do…and to look at them from time to time to see how base metal can change into gold.
Pauline Francis www.paulinefrancis.co.uk