Making Real Writers: Designing Activities for Schools
I don't principally write for children, so my published work is not of great interest to them. However, the way I write is, so I create activities by deconstructing my own process and converting it into something manageable, according to stage and outcome required. That way I can get behind the authenticity of the process, and help to model it. I like to treat the pupils 'as writers'.
I never explicitly set out to 'create' characters for my fiction
Everything in my own writing starts with stimulus, and often with detailed observation of place. A few years ago Lari Don and I ran a story-writing project in Pinkie primary school, Musselburgh, for Scottish Book Trust. We soon decided that a historic doocot in the grounds of the school would be a starting point. So, in one of our first sessions we took the class to explore it, to feel the graze of the sandstone under their fingers, hear the clatter of pigeons, their cooing and the smell of their poo in the great dark hollow of the old building. Each pupil had a writer's notebook in which to record sensations. This added a sense that this was not exactly part of a school writing task, but something more exciting.
After deconstructing my own process, I usually have to simplify it. For example, I never explicitly set out to 'create' characters for my fiction; they arrive quite intuitively from the process of observation, notetaking, and things stored in my head.
However, I come to know them intimately and could answer questions about them if pressed: what sort of shoes they would wear and how polished they are, what time they go to bed, what they're afraid of, a favourite place, a recurrent dream etc. So I get these questions asked early, perhaps of a photo or an outline drawn in the centre of a piece of paper. Might the character have a special hat, or a superpower, or a magical gadget?
It will depend upon the genre and the stage of the class, but a character is rapidly created through this task and a story soon arises from the interaction of their motivations, weaknesses and the place in which they find themselves.
I rarely begin writing the first draft of a story myself until I have some idea, however provisional, of how it will end. This happens through a messy process over time of observing, thinking, walking, reading and playing with notes and ideas; not something that is easy to emulate in the classroom. Pupils of any age may start writing a story with great promise and then find it fizzles out.
One way of encouraging them to look ahead before starting a first draft is using a storyboard as a plan – six simple boxes with a line of abbreviated text beneath each. They usually have no problem in filling out the first three boxes. I then encourage them to go to the final, the sixth, box to see how the story ends. After that they just have to work out how boxes 4 and 5 will move the story between box 3 and box 6. This has a further advantage that children who are visually orientated can draw the stages of their story and often get satisfaction from that.
Writing is re-writing, and revision
As professional writers we know that most writing is re-writing, and revision – real revision – is perhaps the hardest stage to accommodate in school sessions and is often resisted. In an extended short story writing project with third years at George Watson's last year, I emphasised this as the mark of professional writers. Somewhere between first draft and a final story accepted for publication, I required each writer to summarise their story in no more than 12 words. I then asked them to reshape and, if necessary, trim their story, so that it was about this, and only this, summary. In my own process I know a point will come when I must clarify what my story is really about if it is to fly.
The promise of publication was a great incentive in this project – we produced a very lovely book-length anthology – and this also felt authentic. As writers, we draft and revise and polish because we believe that at some point there might be an audience for our work. Even if this is simply reading a story or a poem to a fellow pupil, I believe this part of the process, the real communication of the written word, is essential in motivating pupil-writers too and I always try to design a creative writing project with that in mind.