Before we all go off for the summer, I’m so excited to post this interview I did with NI teen writer Dara McAnulty!

Dara is 16, and his first book Diary of a Young Naturalist, which was published in May this year, is about conservation, activism, writing, being autistic, being bullied, his school, his family and most of all, his deep love of the natural world.

When I started this year as Children’s Writing Fellow I had no idea what to expect. But I bet none of us expected to be ending the year like this!

It’s been an absolutely mad year but also really wonderful and I just want to say thank you so much to all the schools who’ve contacted me and used the blog. The thought that there are new creative writing groups being set up around NI makes me so happy! I hope they run for years and give lots and lots of young people opportunities to be creative, and all the benefits that creativity brings.

I did a BA in English and Creative Writing at Queens University Belfast and I loved it. But I did it as an adult because when I left school I’d never even heard of a degree in Creative Writing. There wasn’t a course in Belfast, as far as I was aware, and no one told me anything about it at school.

These days loads of universities offer creative writing, including QUB (hurrah!) so today on the blog I’ve got Glenn Patterson, author of many many wonderful books, and Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queens, who has kindly agreed to answer some questions that might help you make your decision. Thanks Glenn!

Glenn is a man who knows how to do an Author Photo

Why should I study creative writing at university?

It might sound like an odd thing to say, but first and foremost studying creative writing will make you a better reader. By thinking about – and talking about – your own writing, and the writing of fellow students, you will have a new understanding of how other, published works came into being: the decisions their writers made along the way. It will, undoubtedly, make you a better writer too, or help you to see how to become the best writer you can be. But being a good reader – someone, that is, who is alive to language, its uses and abuses – strikes me as no small benefit in a world where you are constantly assailed by text of one kind or another.

Hope everyone had a relaxing half-term. If we couldn’t go anywhere, at least the weather was nice. We’ve all been missing out on lots of things lately. I was really looking forward to going to the West Cork Literary Festival in July, where I was going to be interviewed by a specially trained team of teen interviewers! Luckily the clever folks at Graffiti Theatre managed to do the whole thing online instead.

The kids had training sessions with Graffiti Theatre and YA writer Cethan Leahy and then they Zoom interviewed 3 YA writers:

Juno Dawson

I’m delighted to be involved in another exciting writing opportunity for secondary-age students in NI, and I’m particularly thrilled about this one because it’s for essay writing!

Which you don’t see a lot of outside the classroom. I was always one of those odd kids who actually loved writing essays as much as I loved writing fiction. The general consensus about doing English Lit in school is that everyone loves books until you start making them write essays about them, and I completely agree, that can be off-putting, especially when it feels like the whole point of the essay is just to test what you know and it has to fit into a certain easy-to-mark structure that doesn’t allow any room for creativity. Continue reading “Essay Writing Competition: Discuss.”

At Christmas I got to be a judge for BBC NI’s Two Minute Tales competition. Kids wrote Christmas themed stories that could be read aloud in 2 minutes and the winners were read on the radio and animated on the website.

It was so much fun to read the stories (there is some serious writing talent in NI). We did the final judging in the BBC offices and they’d dressed the room up for Christmas! (Note the awesome TV fire. Don’t know why I bothered tiling my fireplace TBH.)

Today on The Blank Page we’ve got special guest, Shirley-Anne McMillan to tell your young writers how to make their own Zines! She’s even made a video!

Zines are basically mini books you can make yourself, on any topic at all. I’ve never made one but it looks like so much fun I might give it a go.

Shirley is a YA writer from Co. Down and I’ve LOVED every one of her books. She likes to tackle big issues like LGBTQ+ rights, social injustice, teen pregnancy, living in care, and she’s as much of an activist in real life as she is in her books so she’s the perfect person to give us some tips on how to use Zines as a way to respond to injustice and maybe even change the world.

Next up in my series of special guests on The Blank Page is the multi-talented Myra Zepf! Myra writes for children and teenagers, in English and Irish. Her latest picture book has been adapted into a beautiful dance performed at the Ulster Folk Museum and her verse novel for teenagers is up for the Children’s Books Ireland Book of the Year Award.

She was the first Children’s Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland and with 5 (!) teenagers at home, she’s the perfect person to share her advice for young (or young at heart) writers in these strange days we find ourselves in. I think (after I deliver my parents’ shopping) I’ll be taking her advice today myself!

Thanks for being here (in a virtual, socially-distant way) Myra!

 

I’m sure that in the worry and uncertainty of the last couple of weeks, afterschool clubs are the last thing on anyone’s mind! But since the schools are closing and students are looking at weeks of working at home, I’ve made a list of some online resources that might entertain, help them feel less isolated, and allow creativity to continue to flourish. And being creative might even help those who are feeling anxious about what’s going on to express and deal with those feelings.

And it’s all a matter of perspective. We can believe we’re prisoners in our own homes or we can pretend we’re JD Salinger, shunning the press and writing our next classic novel!

Continue reading “Self-Isolating or Reclusive Genius?”

Today I’m thrilled to welcome local writer Jo Zebedee to The Blank Page! Jo is a Sci-Fi and Fantasy author and knows much more about these genres than I do, so if you have any young writers who are into Sci-Fi/Fantasy, you could pass on these tips to them and introduce them to a local writer at the same time. Thanks Jo for sharing your expertise!

Enjoy!

For older writers (or group leaders) who’d like to do some serious study into story theory, I highly recommend KM Weiland’s site Helping Writers Become Authors. It’s absolutely chokka with useful information about how novels are structured and how character arcs work.

It’s quite in-depth and might be too complex for younger or less serious writers but something that I thought would be useful to any young writer was her list of the different types of characters in a story.

I’m very excited because today on The Blank Page I have a special guest post by a special guest author!

Caroline Busher is the Irish Times best-selling author of “The Ghosts of Magnificent Children” and “The Girl Who Ate The Stars” (Poolbeg Press). She’s also done a lot of work with young readers and writers with dyslexia.

Welcome, Caroline! I do my best to make my writing club a welcoming and inclusive space but I admit I don’t know a lot about things like dyslexia that might make participation more difficult for some kids, and I imagine many writing group leaders might be in the same boat. So I thought I’d ask Caroline to give us some of her expert advice and she kindly sent me the following guest post (thanks Caroline!)

Enjoy!

As it’s WORLD BOOK DAY (!!!) I’ve been writing articles for a couple of newspapers about encouraging kids to read, which basically means me banging on about getting parents to read. (If you treat reading like it’s ‘Kids Stuff’ or ‘Homework’ or ‘A Less Valuable Use of Your Time Than Facebook’, then your kids will see it that way too.)

It occured to me that we could say the same about writing and creativity in general. I was also inspired by this blog post by the wonderful NI children’s writer, Sheena Wilkinson.

This exercise is based on the notion of the ‘Elevator Pitch’ and it’s just a way to get the imagination going.

The Elevator Pitch is based on the idea that if you ever happened to get in a lift with a top publisher/director/agent, you could tell them the idea for your brilliant book/film/play in the time it takes to get to their floor.

The lift scenario is quite unlikely (agents probably take the stairs for exactly this reason) but every writer is supposed to have their elevator pitch ready to go at all times.

I think it’s a little odd that script-writing doesn’t come up much in the curriculum. I suppose technically Shakespeare plays are scripts but it never felt like they were being studied as scripts, and they certainly weren’t related to creative writing in my experience.

But when you think about it, scripts are maybe the form of writing most familiar to kids. They probably have a lot more exposure to TV and Movies than novels or poetry.

Hope you had a great half term!

This is a quick poetry writing exercise I found on Ted Talks. It’s an 18 minute video in which he explains the three steps for writing a 2-line poem. The audience write along with him and produce their 2-line poem (I did it myself, it was fun) so I played it for my writers and invited them to write along.

About half of them decided to give it a go, others were working on their own stuff. Of the half that started, a few dropped out along the way, one turned hers into a piece of prose instead, and just one completed a poem. She then turned it into a longer poem.

As I keep saying, you really don’t have to be a writer or teacher yourself to run a writing club for young writers. All you need to be is a facilitator. An enthusiastic cheerleader willing to listen and applaud.

The time and space and attention you provide are the important things and that’s all your young writers really need, so never be put off by worrying that you don’t know enough about writing or teaching writing. You don’t need to.

Continue reading “8 Ways To Make Your Story Boring”

When I studied creative writing at Queens we were visited by my favourite writer, Marilynne Robinson, who also teaches at the Iowa University’s Writers Workshop. The IWW have produced 17 Pulitzer Prize winners and 6 recent US Poet Laureates, among many other honours.

Robinson said she is asked by every university she visits, “What’s the IWW’s secret, why are you so successful?” And she always answers, “We don’t grade.” And, without exception, their faces fall.

Blackout Poetry is so simple and so much fun and you can end up with really beautiful results. It’s also great for helping nervous or blocked writers get going. In fact writers often use it as a way to kick start their creativity.

It’s also known as Found Poetry or Erasure Poetry and the basic premise is that you start with a page of text, then you black-out the words you don’t want, leaving a poem on the page.

Obviously you don’t want to be taking sharpies to the library books, so you can photocopy a few pages in advance for the kids to work on.

Today I have a poem for you, but before that I want to give you an update on how the Blank Page project is progressing.

January has been a crazy month, but a good one. The response to the blog has been incredible. The fantastic people at the school library service helped to get the word out to all the schools during the first week of January and within about ten days all 25 of my resource packs were spoken for! There are brand new creative writing groups being set up all over the country as we speak and I can’t tell you how thrilled that makes me!

The other piece of good news is that I might be able to rustle up some more packs! I managed to get some of the resources cheaper than expected, and then the ever-wonderful David at No Alibis bookshop gave me a hefty discount on the books just because he likes to support all literary endeavour especially encouraging young readers and writers, and my saint of a husband did all my website stuff (isn’t it good!), saving me hiring a tech-expert, so there is some funding left over. So if any more schools would like a pack for their writing club, do get in touch. And if you’re using the blog for tips and resources, remember to subscribe for notifications of new posts.

Continue reading “Portable Poetry”

Dialogue is one of those marmite things that you either love writing or hate writing. I’ve noticed that writers who love writing dialogue (e.g. me) tend to write a bit like scriptwriters. I often write the first draft of scenes in pure dialogue, and I can reach the end of the scene without ever deciding if these characters are indoors or outdoors, under the sea or on the moon, wearing wetsuits or PJs.

I hate writing physical description of places, people or actions and I usually have to go back when I’ve finished the scene and fill all that in. I like spoken words and the stuff going on inside the character’s head, but not so much the external world.

I mentioned in an earlier post that there are probably writing forms that your young writers have never heard of, but which might be the key to unlocking their writing. Conversely, there might be genres of storytelling which your young writers are familiar with that you’ve never heard of or thought of as stories.

We’re so used to rolling our eyes at ‘screen time’ that I think we tend to pit it in direct opposition to all that’s good and holy, (i.e. page time).

But TV, movies, comics, video games and D&D are all forms of storytelling. If you actually play any of those fantasy computer games, you quickly realise they have more complicated world buildings and casts than Lord of the Rings. And story structure is surprisingly universal across all these forms of storytelling so you can learn a lot from all of them.

When your young writers are stuck, or want to know how to improve their story, or why it’s not working or why the plot is unbelievable, or why the dialogue is clunky, and they look at you like

And you’re like

Don’t worry. The answer is this:

Character

Doesn’t matter what the problem, 99% of the time the answer is character. Character is everything.

I’ve had lots of emails this week from people saying they’re considering starting up a group, which I am THRILLED about!

Some start up advice: I think it’s great when the kids feel that the club is ‘their’ club. It’s hard to freely express yourself if you don’t feel comfortable and in control. It’s like trying to relax in someone else’s house. So I think it’s lovely for kids to feel that the club is their ‘tribe’. It makes the members closer friends, and I know our group has become a safe space for some of them where they can be themselves in a way they don’t feel comfortable being in school, and that’s an incredible gift to give anyone.

So here are some ways you can encourage the kids to take ownership of the group:

 

Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas and that there were lots of New Year’s resolutions along the lines of ‘Will start a creative writing club in school.’

Today I have another quick conversation starter based on the opening lines of books. But first, now that we’re all settled back into the new term (no? Still eating chocolate Santas in your PJs? Is that just me?) can I let everyone know that I have some shiny (and free) resource packs to send out to schools for their writing groups!

For a bit of light relief at Christmas, you could try this exercise I put together for the writers I work with. We had a lot of fun with it:

Pretend you’re writing the author bio for your first novel or short story or poem. You’ll find an author bio in every book and it’s a little known fact that, although the bio is written in the 3rd person, the writer usually has to write it themselves. It can be serious or not so serious. Naturally, I like the funny ones best and I’ve included some of my favourite examples below. Several of them are by Terry Pratchett, because he is the KING of this.

Sir Terry

Author bios tend to follow a rough pattern:

I wrote last week about how some people (particularly girls, it seems) are paralysed creatively by a need to be perfect. I’ve come across this in several young writers. They have terrible trouble getting started because they’re reluctant to deface a blank page with anything that isn’t flawless.

I had one writer who suffered badly from this, and the problem was compounded by the fact that everything they wrote turned out badly (according to them anyway). Every week they’d fight through the anxiety to produce a little paragraph that didn’t really go anywhere but was nevertheless full of beautiful phrases and interesting language.

I would, of course, praise the language and originality and tell the writer how great they were, and every week, they’d go, ‘Hmm. But it’s not really a story, is it?’ (It wasn’t. It didn’t have a beginning, middle and end). ‘And it’s not a poem.’ (It wasn’t. It had no structure.) ‘It’s not anything, it’s a failure, it’s rubbish.’ Cue head hitting desk dramatically.

This was very distressing for me because I just couldn’t get this writer to believe in their writing and I was very afraid they’d quit altogether.

Following on from the post on how to give feedback, I’ve been thinking about having the confidence to read aloud, and the role gender plays in this. There’s a fascinating Ted Talk by Reshma Saujani on this subject.

Saujani suggests that girls are socialised to avoid risk and failure, to play it safe, get top marks, while boys are taught to aim high, jump in, play rough, give it a go.

“We’re raising our girls to be perfect and we’re raising our boys to be brave.”

She cites a study done with bright 5th graders who were presented with an assignment that was too difficult for them. At this level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject. But even so, the study found that the higher their IQ, the more likely the girls were to quit, while the boys were more likely to try harder and therefore did better overall.

There’s a reason writers are neurotic heaps. Creative work involves putting little pieces of yourself on public display and inviting people to stomp on them. For teenagers that may be even worse because what people think of you is all-consuming and social media has made you accessible to everyone.

Any writing group will include kids who are busting to read their stories and kids who would literally rather die. I don’t think anyone should be pressured into sharing their work, but there will be kids who would like to but just lack the confidence, and there are ways you can help them.

First, be aware that there’s a difference between lack of confidence and introversion. Some kids want to be drawn out; for others maybe the writing club is the only quiet or private time they get and they don’t want to share their work.

But if they are shy, there are things you can try.

This post is about the nitty gritty of running a group and the little details that can make all the difference. You’ll know best what will work for your group, this is just how we run ours:

Time:

We have 2 hours, broken up roughly as follows –

  • 20 minutes to chat and get settled
  • 1 hour of quiet writing time
  • 30 minutes to read aloud and give feedback

Rules:

One of the things we stress is that it’s their club. When we started, we drew up a ‘group contract’, giving the kids the opportunity to say what they wanted from the group, including things like ‘you can sit where you like’ and ‘shoes need not be worn’. (They could also come up with their own group name.) Changes and issues are run past the group and agreed by them.

Over time the contract has boiled down to one rule, which is ‘It’s up to you what you write and whether you write, but you can’t disturb anyone else’s writing time’. Generally that’s the only rule we’ve needed. If someone doesn’t feel like writing that’s fine, we all have days like that. They can read, draw, do emergency homework. But they can’t disturb anyone else.

The rules apply to the adults too. We don’t use their meeting time to have a chat because that would distract the kids and I feel it’s also a bit disrespectful. We’re at their club, not in our classroom.

This is a fun and easy exercise to introduce the idea of having a healthy attitude to writing competitions.

Some of the young writers I work with love entering competitions. Some are currently working on submissions to the Irish Times, and a couple were included in an anthology put together by Fighting Words Belfast which is launching tonight.

If I come across a competition I usually do mention it to my young writers in case they’re interested, but I also do this exercise with them, because it’s a bit of fun and it gives a really good insight into how competitions work.

Continue reading “Healthy Competition”

I am loathe to tell a young writer what to write, but I do try to introduce them to different forms of writing because one size does not fit all and it may be that any creative paralysis they’re experiencing could simply be because they are poets, not playwrights, or novelists, not short story writers.

The English curriculum covers novels, poems and plays. Maybe a short story or two. YA publishing doesn’t cover much more than this either. There are very few short story collections for teens, never mind anything more experimental. Which means there are so many forms and genres out there that they haven’t even heard of, and one of them just might be their writing comfort zone.

For example, there’s Memoir, Prose-Poetry, The Personal Essay, Flash Fiction, Novellas, Micro Fiction, Radio Drama, Spoken Word Poetry, Creative Non-Fiction, TV Scripts, Graphic Novels, Video Game Writing, Blogging, Fan Fiction, Nature Writing…

There’s even ‘Twitterature’.

And probably more, not to mention all the variation and genres within these. Some of the more uncommon things produced at our writing club have included:

Continue reading “Flash Fiction and The Postcard Box”

A lot of these posts will be on what we actually do at the writing group I’m involved with, this one is on why we do it.

As I’ve said, I rarely do exercises with my teen writers, because I think they’re always much more engaged with their own ideas than anyone else’s, but I do suggest exercises they can do when they’re stuck for an idea of their own.

Anyway, we were doing this exercise where you write twenty sentences, each beginning with the words ‘I remember’. Then you write twenty more beginning, ‘I wish’. Then you use what you’ve got as raw material to write a poem or story.

One of the girls was reading out her ‘I remember’ list and said, I remember playing Pretend with my friend for the last time.

I thought, Oh God, what happened, did her friend die or something? I hesitantly asked and she said, We were just playing Pretend one day and she suddenly stopped and said, “This isn’t working anymore,” and then we went inside and played video games.

I think that probably broke my heart even more than the dead-friend scenario.

Continue reading “Let’s Pretend”

In my primary school we’d occasionally be given the opportunity to write stories. But what I remember about these exercises is that, like most things in life, they came with a catch. The teacher would give you the first line of the story, or the title, and you had to finish it.

To me that always felt like being promised something exciting and then having it snatched away. I remember one that had to be called ‘The Magic Shoes’. I didn’t want to write about magic shoes, I wanted to write about meeting Santa. But I was an obedient kid so I wrote a story about meeting Santa, in the last sentence of which, Santa declared I had been so helpful that he’d give me the gift of a pair of magic shoes.

Continue reading “The Little Box of Inspiration”

As I said in the last post, the format at my writing group is REALLY simple. I don’t do any formal teaching or give instructions or exercises, we just let the kids write whatever they like and they respond well to that, producing fantastic writing that’s really personal and important to them.

But there are ways you can inspire, help and teach them without putting them under pressure or making them feel like they’re doing homework and I’ll be sharing those as we go along.

First up: Top Tips

Something that always inspires me to write, is reading interviews with other writers. Mostly this is to reassure myself that they ALL find it difficult, but the best bit is when they give you their ‘Top Ten Tips’ for writing. Every writer gets asked for these apparently, there are dozens of them online.

When I first began working with my young writers, I started choosing an author each week and printing out their Top Ten Tips to give to the kids. Sometimes they’d heard of the writer, sometimes they hadn’t, it didn’t matter. They always looked forward to the tips because they’re quick, useful, often funny, and they come from REAL writers, which, I’m sorry, is always going to be more impressive than REAL librarians and REAL teachers (totes unfair, I know).

But the big benefit of these is seeing that every writer does it differently. It’s great when you read a tip and think, ‘Oh! I do that too!’ because you feel like you must be getting it right, but it’s also great to see the massive variation in writing methods because it drives home the point that actually, you can’t possibly be getting it wrong.

Continue reading “Top Tips”

It is a truth universally acknowleged that kids hate school. Even the ones who love it, are publically obliged to swear it’s hell on toast. Which makes me wonder why writing groups for kids are based on a traditional classroom model: An adult sits at the front, talks at you a bit, sets an exercise and then judges your work.

Not saying there’s anything wrong with classrooms or teachers, just that, for some kids, the classroom setting is tied up with notions about assessment and right/wrong, pass/fail, which isn’t really what creativity is about.

Most writing classes have to be run this way because it’s usually a one-off session or a course that people have paid to do, so of course you need to provide actual instruction. And this can be brilliant and helpful. But a regular school writing group has certain advantages that you don’t get from one-off taught classes and we can exploit these. Such as:

Continue reading “We Don’t Need No Education”

Welcome to The Blank Page Blog! Novels are all very well but I do love a good blog. They’re useful, bite-sized and create communities of likeminded people. Plus you get to use memes, and who doesn’t love a meme?

So I have set up The Blank Page for all things Fellowship, and I thought I would start with a post on being appointed as Seamus Heaney Children’s Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland and my plans for this year, because that’s probably the best way to introduce myself.

What is a Children’s Writing Fellowship, I hear you cry. Well, funnily enough, I asked Damian Smyth from the Arts Council the same question. And the answer was, ‘whatever you make it’. It’s essentially two years of time and space for me to write and work on projects that I’m passionate about.

So you can think of this first blog post as a statement of the things I’m passionate about and would like to contribute to through this wonderful opportunity, and my plans for working with schools this year.

A mini-festo, if you will!

Continue reading “Minifesto”