How long is too long? This was on my mind this week as I prepared for a trip to Bedfordshire for a whole day visit to a secondary school.
The lovely librarian had booked me in for a three sessions. A two hour slot with the whole of Y9 to talk about my books. Another two hour creative writing workshop, with selected pupils from Y9 and 10. And then (after lunch) an hour with the school’s reading groups, spanning Y10s who had all read my first book, When I Was Joe, Year 9s, some of whom would have spent the entire day listening to me, and Y7s.
I have to admit that I was nervous as I drove up the M1. Two hours seemed a long time to fill. Did I have enough to say to keep the pupils interested? How many writing exercises would fill two hours? Would the Y9s who saw me three times be bored solid by the end of the day?
I’m used to speaking for an hour at a time. Roughly 30 minutes speaking, broken up by a video trailer for my ‘Joe’ trilogy. Then the rest of the session spent in Q&A. I try and involve pupils in thinking about the themes of my books. ‘What would you buy if you won the lottery?’ is a good way of filling time. ‘What would be the most difficult thing about going into witness protection?’
Similarly, a writing workshop for an hour starts with a ten minute chat about writing processes, and getting started. Then half an hour on a writing exercise. Ten minutes talking about the results of the exercise. Then a ten minute Q&A or discussion about the session.
For this visit, I thought I’d do something a bit different, so I prepared a talk based on true or false statements. Was it true or false that I’d once jumped out of a helicopter for work (true). Had I really got a £50,000 advance for my first novel (sadly false). With twenty statements, I thought I’d be talking for at least 40 minutes, but involving the pupils too. Then I’d show them my trailer, and also a nine minute video of clips from the musical that I’m working on, adapted from my book Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery. And then questions, with a prize of a book for the best question.
Session one went well, and actually I think I’d have been fine just talking for 40 minutes without the True or False statement - with just a little bit of interaction. I was ready for a break in the middle, and the videos gave me that. We had half an hour of good questions, and then we ended the session, with 15 minutes to go. One hour, forty five minutes was fine, we agreed, although I’d have preferred one and a half hours ideally. Carolyn, the librarian, said she thought it was important that children learn to concentrate for two hour sessions. Their exams are two hours long at least, she pointed out, they should be able to sit and behave and use their brains.
For the creative writing session, two hours was perfect. The pupils had time to think and discuss their ideas, as we did a plot planning exercise and a character creation/plot creating one too. They asked questions, read out their work, seemed to have fun. It was a more relaxed atmosphere than the one hour workshops I’ve run. At the end there was time to reflect, ask questions and think about how they’d take their ideas forward. To my surprise I ended up convinced that two hours is perfect for a writing workshop.
The hour at the end of the day with the reading groups was just magic. All of the pupils were avid readers, none of them had met an author before, they were interested in everything from differentiating voices in a split narrative, to cover design to my favourite books. I felt that I was in a school that valued reading for pleasure for its own sake, and also for the many benefits it brought its pupils. I would not be at all surprised if Manshead School in Dunstable produces some fabulous writers of its own in years to come, I met so many articulate, interesting and talented students.
One hour sessions are still my comfort zone. But I wouldn’t be worried about two hour slots again. One thing I would make sure though, is to have breakfast first. Domestic crises meant that I arrived at the school having eaten nothing, and I did the first four hours of the day with just a chocolate chip cookie to sustain me. By lunchtime my blood sugar was so low that I could hardly speak. From now on I’m taking nuts and raisins everywhere I go.