Wow, what is this? Two blogs in as many days? Now that is called dedication… or perhaps procrastination.
So, where to begin. I attend a local chat group formed mostly of teachers, librarians and children’s authors who get together to talk about books, mostly ones aimed at children and young adults. I don’t write for children and I don’t really write for young adults, but I love books so I go along. They are always very entertaining evenings. Last time someone made the mistake of getting me started on my hobby horse about book publishing, but I must have been somehow inspiring rather than annoying, because one of the ladies passed my name on to a school… The following day I got an email asking if I would come and talk about writing with a group of grade 4/5 students (read 9-10 years old). I said yes. I say yes to everything at the moment, especially if the question is whether I want more chocolate or a cup of tea…
I went to the school. I took the first book I wrote (the infamous Sad Little Christmas Tree) and I talked to them about writing and why I do it. I told them how I came to be a writer because I never wanted to do anything else. That even if not a single one of my books had ever been published I would have kept writing because I couldn’t NOT write. Aaannd they all stared up at me with their blank expressions, waiting to decide if I am going to be this boring for the whole session.
No! I refuse to be boring. I had organised to do a writing exercise with them – so I took up the whiteboard marker, 55 students sitting on the floor at my feet, and I told them what you need to write a story. Protagonist. Problem. Let’s keep it simple, I thought, start with the basics.
“We need a protagonist, a character who this story is going to be about.”
“Can we call him ‘Bob’?”
“Yes, we can call him Bob. Now we need to know a little bit about Bob.”
It was sheer power! All these hands rising around me and I got to choose which one was allowed to speak. And choose I did, trying to be even handed and unprejudiced and make sure everyone got to have a chance. And what we ended up with was this:
Bob: 51 Years old. Cow. Lonely. Fat. Red with purple stripes. His only friend is a Slug.
A testament to the imaginative power of children. Ok, I can work with this, I can work with this.
“Bob needs a problem. A goal. Something he wants to achieve.”
“He needs to find his friend – Conner,” one of them says.
“Who’s a cat!” another shouts.
Much laughter. Conner is a child in the class I discover later, at least calling him a cat doesn’t seem to be rude so let’s move on.
So we move on and I am soon balancing on the slippery slope of over excited children, utterly amazed at the things that come out of their mouths. I have a three year old and a one year old, so now I get to see what I have to look forward to. Because you see, Bob needed to get out of the paddock, so logic dictates that there must be a unicorn upon whose back he can climb – thus breaking its legs. Yes, we now have a unicorn with broken legs and Bob is still stuck in the paddock.
One very lateral thinking girl informs me that Bob must wait until it is dark, because when it is dark he will be able to jump over the moon. Ok, but darn, turns out he just landed in another paddock. Perhaps my cruelty to characters at that age wasn’t special, it was just normal. I just didn’t lose the knack.
But look! There is another unicorn. Brilliant. Let’s eat it. “What?!” – “To gain it’s powers of course.”
Yes… of course. So now we are having the conversation about consequences, with reference to Harry Potter. It isn’t nice to eat unicorns, so what are the ramifications of this – Bob feels bad and the unicorn comes back to haunt him as a ghost, but when Bob explains why he did it, the unicorn forgives him and goes to get the farmer’s daughter to let Bob out of the paddock – yay!
It was at this point that I realised they hadn’t grasped the most important part of story structure – they weren’t linking anything together with the REASON – WHY? I started to ask them as they threw Bob’s next moves at me. “He gets stuck in some mud” “He goes and hitchhikes on the side of the road” “He follows the farmer on Instagram.” WHY? If he is trying to find his friend Conner. I have no problem with him getting stuck in the mud, but WHY? They were jumping from action to action instead of reason to reason, and it took about ten minutes for me to get this concept through to them. Internal logic. Always think of the goal, always keep your eye on the goal, and make sure your characters are trying to reach it.
We got there in the end. Conner likes climbing, so look up the trees. There he is, up a tree. How do we get him down? Magical unicorn powers (from the unicorn Bob ate) kick in and he floats up, but he is too fat and all he does is fall back down. He is too fat to save Conner. Answer – GO TO THE GYM – congratulations to the boy who came up with that one, realising that Bob has a secondary problem that is stopping him from succeeding at his goal, and fix it! Beautiful, character development here we come.
Bob is now able to get up the tree, but he is just too late! The Slug friend from back in the paddock feels betrayed and kidnaps Conner out of the tree with a helicopter. Bob gets a jetpack (as you do) and flies after it, (as you do) only to discover that it wasn’t really Conner at all, but a completely different cat. He goes back to his paddock because he’s had enough, and there, in a tree, is Conner waiting for him. Conveniently happy ending. You would think they’d read some books or something…
They invited me to come back and do it all over again with their other classes…