Recently I presented a session on the challenges of writing a novel. This was for a school holiday writing course, age range 12-16. At 16 a student generally has a good understanding of writing techniques and the capacity to plan and execute a big project. At 12, young writers generally gain more benefit from letting their imaginations run riot than from trying to apply discipline to their work.
I’d been quite stressed about this session because of the difficulty of designing a workshop to suit everyone in this awkward age range. There were some keenly interested older students – the creative buzz among the 15 and 16 year olds when I walked in was almost palpable. We worked mainly on planning, using a well-known story as the basis for drafting a synopsis. I took too long over this and ran out of time for reading aloud and general chat. I would grade my overall performance as a C minus. This was definitely not one of my better efforts. Factors beyond my control didn’t help – a crowded venue, no real facility to spread out for practical exercises and a lack of advance info on the makeup of the group. But my own miscalculations were the main problem. I was disappointed that I failed to tap fully into the vitality shown by the older students. The energy level for the session was, at best, low to medium.
So what should I have done differently?
Well, I realised when we were almost finished that these students didn’t need the structured session I’d planned with its handouts and writing exercises. I was being too much of a teacher and not enough of a writer. What they wanted was (a) for me to read aloud from my own work and (b) to have their questions on writing answered. My session would have been more effective if I’d dispensed with formal preparation and just winged it. For a control freak like me that’s not possible, but I do need to lighten up. The best part of the session was the Q&A, which could have gone twice as long as it did. Here are some of the questions:
– If you’re a full time writer, what do you do all day?
– What is the most discouraging thing about being a writer?
– If you had to change one of your books, which one would it be?
– What does it take to be a full time writer? Can you live off your earnings?
– How do you write long stories without going on and on?
– Do you tend to work out physical qualities in a character or personalities first?
– Do you like to write in first or third person, and why?
– Do you prefer to find characters or plotline or setting first?
– When you read another author’s novel that is the same genre as yours, do you compare it to yours automatically?
– Have you ever started off loving certain characters and ended up despising them?
Despite the lively interest demonstrated by these questions, I came home disappointed in myself because I knew I should have done better. But I’m a sucker for punishment. I’m hoping to be invited back next year so I can put MY learning into practice!