Our final masterclass of 2016 took place on December 3rd with Alex Wheatle MBE, who challenged us to write outside our comfort zones and drew some strong, angry writing out of the five Megaphone participants. Alex recently won the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize for Crongton Knights, his second YA novel. With Patrice Lawrence recently shortlisted for the Costa children’s book award, and established children’s authors Lee Weatherly, Catherine Johnson and Candy Gourlay also leading masterclasses throughout the year, Megaphone participants will have had the opportunity to learn from the very best writers working in children’s and YA literature today. In 2017, masterclasses will focus on the industry, beginning with a masterclass from literary agent Julia Churchill, who represents (among many other excellent authors) the Carnegie-winning Sarah Crossan. Can’t wait!
Yesterday we were really happy to welcome Patrice Lawrence, whose first YA novel, Orangeboy, has just been published by Hodder. Patrice delivered the third masterclass, a wide ranging session where we discussed trusting yourself to write, finding a structure and using the wealth of our own diverse backgrounds to develop characters. We also talked about the wonderful Long Paper – get a roll of it from Homebase or similar if you’ve not tried using it for plotting and visualising your stories. Personally I think it’s the best tool in my writer’s toolkit!
We also discussed the psychological journey a writer takes when drafting a novel for the first time. This is something that I think is not much written about – there’s a lot out there on the art and craft and practice of writing, but less, perhaps, on things like the 30,000 word doldrums that typically hit any writer. It can really help to know that you’re not alone when you feel despondent about your writing, and that it’s part of a process most people go through.
Thank you Patrice for taking time out of launching Orangeboy to share your experience with us!
We were really pleased to welcome Catherine Johnson (and her cake) to the Writing West Midlands’ meeting room for the second masterclass of Megaphone. Catherine focused on story: from your first chapter, can the reader tell what the story is about or not? She brought us back again and again to the fact that a reader, especially a young one – or a busy editor/agent who has twenty more manuscripts to read that weekend – wants to know right from chapter one, what the story is shaping up to be; what the crucial matter at stake is, for the character.
I remember once, about ten years ago, taking a chapter of my work in progress to an SCBWI-arranged meeting with a well-known editor. I thought it was pretty good. I’d always been told I wrote well. The editor scanned my first chapters, and eventually stabbed her finger onto a (to me, unremarkable) paragraph on the fourth page. “That’s your hook,” she said briefly. “Start with that.”
I tell this story because I now see – with the benefit of ten years of experience of failure and success in writing – that that editor and Catherine Johnson are saying the same thing. The first chapter must establish not just the who’s it about, but the what do they want right now? and the why is this interesting? To a new writer, who’s struggling with and in love with language and the pictures it can paint, inserting such basic story stuff can feel clunky, commercial, paint-by-numbers. It certainly did to me back then – though, more to the point, I had no idea how to do it! But look at any great literary work, from Hamlet to Mrs Dalloway, and I bet you’ll see that all these questions are answered very swiftly, in a manner fitting the intended audience. And that, without sacrificing any energy and beauty from the prose. This is even more so the case in great children’s fiction.
Reading first chapters is a great way of finding out how to make this work. Go to Waterstone’s, or use Amazon’s Look Inside function (other booksellers are available, etc.), and read the first pages of a number of books for the age range you’re writing for. Stop after chapter one, whether you’re enjoying it or not, and reflect: why am I enjoying this (or not)? Why do I want to read on (or not)? The answers will be illuminating for your own writing. Great prose will be mingled with strong character and a heart, a journey, a need or a want that hooks you and reels you in, like…