Showing posts with label Sophia Bennett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sophia Bennett. Show all posts

Thursday, 30 August 2018

So you want to write, by Sophia Bennett

Back to school time.

I always love this time of year. The occasional smell of burning leaves, the autumn colours, the trip to WH Smith to fill up your pencil case with new rubbers and gel tip pens you probably won't use ...

Except, now I'm the teacher. I teach at St George's Hospital, where I'm the Royal Literary Fund Fellow. Funded by Winnie the Pooh, my job is to help medical students who haven't written an essay in years suddenly tackle a research proposal of 2,000 words, or a final year dissertation.

I also (because, as we all know, very very few writers these days can afford to write full-time, and also, it turns out, because I really love it) teach writing for children at City University. This is not 'writing' for-children-at-City (that would be weird), but 'writing for children' for adults who choose to attend a short 10-week course at City, because they think they have a children's book or two inside them, and they're not sure how to get it out.

I've done both for a while now, and while a medical dissertation and a gripping chapter book for seven year-olds may not seem to have a lot in common, here are a few tips I've learned that help if you are stuck, whatever kind of writing you are trying to do.

  1. Don't try too hard to make your writing look 'difficult'. This is especially true of new students trying to impress their professor with their medical knowledge, by using as many long words, sentences and paragraphs as they can think of.
  2. If in doubt, start on chapter two. Or section 2, if it's an essay. I suggest that at first, my medical students leave out that all-important introduction. It's a nightmare! I get them to try writing the bit they know well first, and go from there. They can go back to the introduction later, when they have a structure and know what they're introducing. And if it's a book, students may just find they don't need that missed-out Chapter 1 at all. You started with the action. Somehow you fitted in more of the backstory than you expected to, without going overboard with it. The reader is gripped. You just saved yourself a month of worry. You're welcome. 
  3. Read your work aloud. 
  4. Read your work aloud. 
  5. Read your work aloud. 
  6. READ YOUR WORK ALOUD! If they do only one thing, it should be this. Best of all, at City I ask them to get someone else to read it for them. (Not my idea - Keren David taught it to me.) Instantly, they hear what jars, what doesn't make sense, what takes too long, what's boring, what's really-quite-good-actually, what works. Medical students get so much from it too. They see where their argument has gone a bit flabby, and where they used words whose meaning they weren't entirely sure of (see point 1) and didn't entirely get away with it. 
  7. Don't try to say too much at the beginning. Grip the reader. Let me know what direction I'm heading in. (See point 1 and point 2). I don't want detail yet. I want to trust you as a writer. Tell me what this is about. Let me hear your voice. Give me an intriguing image or two. Get me on your side. Then you can bamboozle me with facts and backstory.
  8. Ah, voice. As Joan Lennon recently said on this blog, it's the thing that matters. I liken voice to the late Terry Wogan. (Not to the medical students who, bless them, would have no idea who I'm talking about. I am about 104.) Remember - do you remember? - when his dark honey voice reached you from the radio? He sounded so confident, so pleased about what he was going to tell you, and he was going to tell it to only you. It was as if he'd put his arm around your shoulder and was walking beside you. A great voice sounds incredibly easy, as if the writer simply couldn't do it any other way, and it is SO BLOOMIN' DIFFICULT. I struggle with it every single time. It takes me longer than anything. But without it, I might as well not bother because it's what makes the reader want to know my story. 
  9. If a sentence can be short, great. 
  10. Read. I know we all know this. All the best medical students I see have one thing in common: they read in their spare time, or they certainly used to until recently. Many of them didn't discover reading for pleasure until their teens, but then they read voraciously. They're embarrassed about doing it now ('It's only novels', 'It's only biographies', 'It's only things I like from magazines') because they think they have to be studying medicine 24/7, but simply by reading, they've absorbed by osmosis most of the things I have to tell their friends. And my City students delight me with how much reading they do between classes, on top of their regular jobs and looking after their families. They learn. They grow. You can see it in their writing. 

    Reading for pleasure is the most important thing. It's why I cling on to every school librarian, teacher and bookseller I meet. I know we all work so hard to keep libraries open and support our indie booksellers, because we know what a fabulous job they do - not only making our work available, but opening up the world of the imagination to a new generation. If you have ever encouraged a child or a young adult to find a book they love, you have my undying appreciation. Thank you! You're educating new writers more than I ever could. 
Sophia Bennett
Twitter - @sophiabennett

Saturday, 19 July 2014

YALC and the Beauty of Bloggers - Lucy Coats

Last Saturday I found myself in the company of Wookies, Jedi, sundry Game of Thrones characters, Spidermen, ogres (male and female) and a raft of other bedecked and be-axed cosplayers. I also had the pleasure of meeting some of the many wonderful YA bloggers I chat to and follow online. Yes, this was the mad and crazy glory that was the UK's first ever Young Adult Literature Convention (mixed with lashings of ComicCon). The Daily Telegraph deemed it a hit - and barring a few gripes about the nightmare queues, the heat, the lack of seating, the audio-fails and the heaving walls of bodies blocking the way to the book lecture stage (all dying to have their photo taken with Marvelmeister Stan Lee), I loved every minute. The whole thing was dreamed up by Booktrust and our very own Children's Laureate, Malorie Blackman, and I think we should all stand up and cheer her to the steel rafters that only just kept the roof on Earls Court (the noise was ear-tingling). Much has been written about the brilliant panels and workshops elsewhere, but I want to focus on something else. Yes, those book bloggers.

With much of the newspaper industry (the Guardian being an honourable exception) giving less and less review coverage to children's and YA books, the book bloggers are our enthusiastic champions, and we need to recognise the HUGE amounts of unpaid time and energy they put into reading and then writing about our neck of the literary woods. They tweet, they discuss, they get the word out there, and I think we owe them all a great debt of gratitude - including our very own Awfully Big Review team, of course!

The post-conference 'For the Fringe' party (organised by the indomitable Sophia Bennett) was a marvellous mix of authors and bloggers - @YaYeahYeah, @Serendipity_Viv, @JessHeartsBooks, @Splendibird, @RachReviewsAll, @carlybennett,, in fact far too many to name-check them all here  - and the level of knowledgeable bookish chat was off the scale. To meet so many enthusiastic readers was a shot in the arm for all the authors who were there, I think - and I was kept busy scribbling down new blogsites and book recommendations as well as chatting till I thought my tongue would drop off.

Another thing I discovered at YALC was The Siobhan Dowd Trust in action. Actually, I discovered it before I even got there, while I was still on the tube. Overhearing a group of teenagers enthusing excitedly about their favourite authors (quite a lot of screaming) was another shot in the arm - and I later discovered from their librarian that they were from a Manchester school, and that their trip had been funded by the SDT. They weren't the only ones either. I found more while listening to one of the panels. They were the ones at the front, grabbing the microphone to ask intelligent and insightful questions of the panel members. This is the wonderful thing about the SDT - they give bookish kids opportunities they might not otherwise have had.

Altogether, YALC was a real eye-opener. The power of books and reading to inspire was demonstrated on a grand scale there - and while some may have felt that ComicCon was not quite the right place to have it, personally, I thought it gave the whole thing added 'buzz'. I really do hope it happens again in 2015 - I'm already planning an Egyptian costume. Be very afraid!