FROM YOUR EDITORS School visits can boost your creativity

Paid school workshops are a great financial boost for any writer or illustrator – but what’s in it for you apart from the money? Words & Pictures Co-editor Claire Watts assesses the creative benefits.

I was lucky enough to land myself a full day of writing workshops at a local secondary school last week. The school had asked for a workshop on creating characters for the first two groups of S1s (12- to 13-year-olds) and S2s (13- to 14-year-olds). That’ll be a cinch, I’d thought, when I sat down to work out how to fill 90 minutes. I’ll print out the character spreadsheet I’m using for my current book and make a blank one for the kids to fill in. Then they can write a character using their spreadsheet and sticking as closely as they can to the ‘show, don’t tell rule’. I could easily throw a lesson plan together in an hour or so.

Pixar and Rebecca

All very well in theory, but once I started analysing my spreadsheet, I found myself asking questions about it. Why were each character’s needs and wants so far down my sheet when they were what the story hung on? We’d definitely need to talk about those. What about the character’s role in the story? I had no section for this, but we’d need to know whether our character was the protagonist or the antagonist or the sidekick…

First time I've ever printed out my character spreadsheet - looks pretty impressive!
Explaining the abridged version we'd be looking at in the workshop

Then, there’s the question of what a character actually is. I’d allotted what I imagined was a rather generous five minutes to talking about this but ended up moving things along after a full quarter of an hour discussing whether a character had to be a person or animal (absolutely not, citing the two lamps in the Pixar short) and if a main character needed to have a name (which led to me giving a summary of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca).

In fact, we talked so much that I had to skip a third of the material I’d prepared to make sure the children had time for writing and sharing their work!

Playing with structure

I gave this workshop twice (much slicker the second time, of course!) and then on to the one I’d been dreading. Linear and non-linear structure was what the S3 (14- to 15-year-olds) teacher had asked for. Preparation for this had taken me an age. The plan was to get them discussing structure and coming up with examples of non-linear structures from books and films, but to make sure we had a good range, I had to do all the work myself first. You’d be surprised how tricky it is to find familiar children’s books and films with at most a 15 certificate with an easily defined non-linear structure! After the discussion, I planned to ask the children to write an outline of a simple linear plot, then rearrange it in some way to make it non-linear and try to explain what effect that would have on the story. My worries that this would be too hard were completely overturned – after a lot of discussion of whether time travel counted as non-linear (our decision was no if you followed the protagonist’s linear timeline but yes if the protagonist’s story was presented in a non-chronological way) and the odd false start, the kids produced flashbacks and stories that started in medias res and framing narratives and clearly explained what they’d done and why.

Kindling creativity

What did I come away from this with? Exhaustion for one. As a person who spends most of their days alone with a computer, being ‘on’ all day comes as a bit of a shock. I don’t know how you SCBWI’s who go on long book tours do it! Apart from that, there’s the money, of course, and the feeling of being appreciated for having delivered something that was entertaining and inspiring. That’s a definite plus. I didn’t sell any actual books. I didn’t take any with me, only postcards and bookmarks to give out because kids love free stuff. Possibly some of these might lead them to remember about me and my books.

The main thing I’ve taken away is that I feel inspired myself. I’m about to start a new book and I’m going to be examining my characters’ roles and their needs and wants more closely before I begin. A new idea has started rolling around in my head about writing a book with a main character who is revealed only through her interaction with other people à la second Mrs de Winter . And I keep pulling books off my shelf to see if the non-linear narrative that I vaguely remember is actually there, and if it works or not, and how and why…

So I would say, yes, throw yourselves into school visits for the money and the exposure, but use them as a tool for your creativity too. Just as talking about other people’s work in a crit group can have repercussions in your own work, so can considering how to teach creative writing to children.

Think about it – how has a school visit kindled your creativity?

*Top photo shows pupils of St Joseph's College, Dumfries, taken by Wendy Jones of Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust

Claire Watts writes and edits non-fiction for children and is Co-editor of Words & Pictures. You can contact her on

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