Friday, 4 September 2015

Running my first Small Creative Writing Session for Children

So this summer has been one of firsts; first job in over a decade, my eldest child’s first days in secondary school, first submission with an agent, but perhaps the most nerve wracking – my first small group creative writing session.

I submitted a lot to a charity blind auction, a creative writing session for a small group of children. To my utter surprise the lot was brought, and therefore I began preparing. The group was four children of varying ages and ability; one six year old, one seven year old, one nine year old and an eleven year old. The winner of the lot asked specifically if I could do a session to try and inspire her daughters to write; make it exciting!

After a lot of thought, I decided that the session had to be three things…

1. Exciting (as per the brief)

2. Interactive

3. Fun

So I planned some activities based around the notion that EVERTHING is exciting, no matter how mundane it may initially appear, as long as you allow your imagination to run free.

So we started with a food. I asked the children,

How exciting is a sandwich?

To which I received the expected answer: not very – or - not at all. So I read a passage out of the Dave Shelton book, ‘A Boy and a Bear in a Boat,’ about the heroic antics of the VLS, VERY LAST SANDWICH. All the children giggled and gawped, and I could see that they were opening up to the concept that in creative writing there are no rules, and that you are only restricted by the scope of your imagination.

We then talked about other foods with exciting properties, like the cakes from Sarah McIntyre’s and Philip Reeves Cakes in Space, and we even made our own cake monsters. The discussion also covered food from Harry Potter, George‘s Marvellous Medicine and then the land of the most exciting food, Wonderland. To make the talk interactive we drunk from bottles marked ‘Drink Me’ and ate mushroom sweets and pretended to shrink and grow.

“My daughters had a wonderful time during the creative writing session with Sally. I was very impressed by the amount of effort that she put into preparing for it. She kept the girls engaged and gently led them back to their writing piece when they got distracted. It has really helped them to see literacy in a more fun way and hopefully they will bring this enthusiasm with them into the next school year.” From Mrs O

After all the excitement we sat down and talked about each child’s favourite food, and started to think how that food could be exciting, and then began to build a story around it. To make the session easier I provided each child with a pre-prepared pack with story wheels, and vocabulary sheets. All the children’s imaginations soon warmed up and their stories became magical and exciting. It was lovely to see them al enjoying their own crazy worlds and ideas. 

The session was short, but the children really seemed to have fun, and took to the notion that writing can be fun. To help the children to continue to develop a love of writing, I sent them so additional activities through the post in the following weeks.

I am very pleased at how my first small creative writing session has gone, and will certainly be thinking of ways to improve and develop it for the future sessions. But one thing I know for sure, it has to be exciting and interactive and most of all fun!

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Rhino v’s Kitten – Reacting to Criticism

When I first began writing, and joined a critique group as I believed that to make it as a writer you needed to be like a rhino; that you needed thick skin. However, my experiences with both giving and receiving feedback in critique groups, and having feedback from industry professionals, and more recently having done extensive edits on my manuscript under the guidance of agent Shelley Instone, my stance has changed. 

Me and my rhino skin  -  painting by Me!

I always thought that tough skin was a perquisite of being a writer, being able to withstand the hurt of criticism. Maybe it is, but a Rhino analogy isn’t a good one. After all, Rhinos are stubborn creatures that are aggressive and have a tendency to drop their heads down and charge blindly in one direction. Unless you are a creative genius with the wind of fortune at your back it is unlikely that you will charge directly into a publishing contract. After all it takes more than one person to write a book, and it is rather like nurturing children; it’s not just the parents who shape a child, they need support from family friends, nursery staff, teachers, health visitors, doctors, the list goes on. And that it is the combined efforts of people working together, and the parents listening to people with more experience / knowledge and implementing their advice which gives the child the best possible start in life. Much like children where the parents get all the credit for how well they turn out, a book is written and shaped by many more people than just the author who has their name on the cover. 

When I recently met up with Shelley and her assistant Olivia, they asked me how I kept so positive when they sent me edits, especially when it came to number 11! As, when they were expecting me to go into writer break down, I remained cheery and upbeat. It was then when I confessed that actually sometimes [most of the time] receiving the edits back was difficult, and that I resorted to getting my husband to read them through first and give me the highlights. That way I got what the main points were without getting blinded in editorial headlights! This approach kept me calm, and allowed me to free my mind, looking for ways and solutions to any issues before I read the editorial report for myself. Crucially, I was calm and over any initial emotional reaction to edits and I could respond in a positive and constructive way. 

It is more of a kitten approach, instead of being a Rhino, and not letting the feedback affect me and continuing on my own path, I took time to lick my wounds, (and grieve for cut characters) and then shook myself off, got up and carried on, taking on board the suggestions and advice and implementing it. The’ Kitten’ reaction has made for an infinitely improved manuscript and a good creative working relationship with my agent too. Although I’m not a great fan of cats in general, I am proud to be a kitten. 

Thursday, 20 August 2015

My Scrumdiddlyumptious New Job at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre!

When I was a child, I LOVED Roald Dahl books, from the first time that the rest of classmates and I sat down on the crowded manky carpet and listened to our teacher read ‘The Witches.’ It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, and when the teacher showed us the Quenton Blake illustrations of a witch and a non-witch and asked us which we thought was the actual witch, we were all amazed that we got it wrong!

I begged my mother to buy a copy of the book so I could read it myself, and know what happens before the rest of my class mates, and of course, grateful I was showing an interest in reading my mum obliged; only to find out everybody else had had the same idea and the whole class was racing to finish the book first.

Despite my difficulties reading due to severe dyslexia, I read my way through every Roald Dahl book I could find, including the auto-biographies ‘Boy’ and ‘Solo’. I loved the dark humour, the word play and the creepy characters, and I knew that the effort of reading would be paid off with a rip-roaring good yarn. My childhood is saturated by memories of Roald Dahl. A firm family favourite film was Danny the Champion of the world with Jeremy Irons and then amazement when at Christmas the animated version of The BFG came out, made even funnier as my Dad at the time looked identical to the BFG!

Even into my adulthood Roald Dahl shaped my endeavours, when studying Fine Art at university we were paired up and told to give our partner a copy of our favourite book, and that we should use the books to produce some artworks. I gave my partner ‘Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH’ [sorry Oz!] but my partner gave me ‘Revolting Rhymes.’ The book lead me down a path that reignited my love for fairy tales, and my art work became fairy tale themed and this eventually resulted in me picking up a pen and beginning to write what would become Through Mortal Eyes.

So when I first visited The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, when my daughter was attending a Puffin Post event for their child guest editors for the ‘Pufflings Magazine’ in 2011 I was utterly amazed that I hadn’t discovered it before , and got very excited about sitting in his chair! I can remembering thinking how great I would be to work there and what a pity it was that it’s wasn’t within commutable distance.

Then luck changed, as we moved over to Buckinghamshire and settled I a house within sniffing distance of the museum , I started stalking the web-site hoping that a suitable job roll may come up that I could apply for. To my joy, in early summer they advertised for Front of House Staff, so I applied. This was terrifying as it’s been a very long time since I last applied for a job, and I had to write up all my eclectic work experience up on to a coherent and appealing CV. 

Photo from The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, thank you!

I was relieved when I was offered an opportunity to audition for the job. Yes, you read that right, AUDITION! So after a spot of cram re-reading of Roald Dahl classics, and a minor outfit catastrophe, I turned up for the audition. I was surprised by the amount of people who were attending, there were a least a dozen and half applicants; from students and teachers, to creative-writing graduates and illustrators. We weren’t the only audition session either, so one thing was clear it was a desirable job with lots of competition.

The audition was fun and designed to get everyone interacting, with games, and then splitting us into teams and assigning us a project, that we were to collaborate on and then report back to the rest of the applicants and interviewers. I enjoyed the audition, and found that all the applicants were lovely people and we all got on easily. When the session was over and I drove home I had no idea how it had went, and prepared myself for the worst.

I was overjoyed to be called into interview, which despite being on an incredibly hot day, I enjoyed, and I thought went well. But I was completely ecstatic when I got offered the job, cue, dancing around the house like a heffalump!

So with much trepidation I ventured to Great Missenden for my first shadowing day, following an experienced Front of House member of staff around and learning the roll hands on. Thankfully, everyone who works at the museum is cherry and friendly, which quickly put me at ease. I adorned my purple shirt and plunged into the world of Dahl, as we worked at the ticket desk, and manned the galleries and exhibitions. I found that I could converse with the visitors with ease, and my days volunteering in a book shop had really been a good foundation for working in the shop. I’m really enjoying it so far, and I shall blog again about how it goes when I’ve settled into the roll.