literature

Author visits via Skype: Vignettes from Strothoff International School

In March I did my first ever author visit via Skype with the wonderful staff and students at Strothoff International School, Frankfurt, who I met last autumn as part of a series of events around the Frankfurt Book Fair and my shortlisting for the Deutsche Jugendliteraturpeis.

Our lesson focused on ‘showing’ versus ‘telling’ in writing descriptions as part of their ‘Snapshots’ unit of study. We talked about

  • using all of our senses.
  • how to convey social and cultural nuances of context through dynamic dialogue involving conflict.
  • using precise, specific language to convey more (e.g. through descriptive verbs).

The wonderful students who attended this class have kindly shared three of the beautiful vignettes they wrote following our session. Thank you so much to the whole class, the lovely teachers who assisted the session, and the parents who gave their permission for this work to be posted here. Please do comment below to share your feedback and appreciation for these incredibly talented young writers!


 


Don’t cross the line

Luca von Seydlitz


 

Where is it? Tension builds up as the clock prepares to take another spin. Time ticking. Threatening to run out. You have no choice. Time is an enemy that can’t be overcome, ruthless and unforgiving. 58. 59. 60. Another minute gone. Another opportunity lost. Another shortage of time. The place empties and your eyes dilate. You twitch. Can’t stay still anymore.

          Where is it? As time passes, tensions become concern. Concerns become fear. Time keeps ticking. Threatening to trip you.

          Where is it? The place darkens. You can’t wait. You walk up and down. Walking becomes rushing. You speed up.

          Where is it? You walk faster and faster and take bigger and bigger steps. You hear a bell. Where is it? A kid begins to cry. Your fear becomes superlative. They’re watching you.

          Where is it? Time runs out. With each passing minute they come closer. Fear becomes terror.

          Where is it? Where is it? You turn around. They are right there. You jump up. You run and then…You slip…You fall. And then it arrives…

…You have made it…


 


Walking Quickly

Eva Wedig

The first rule about being a girl in Morocco is that you have to walk quickly, and keep your head down.

Inside their houses the women yell at the characters on TV, and they tell anyone and everyone exactly what they think. They spend an hour in the bath, and another two on breakfast. They laugh when you try and pull your pajama shirt away from your chest, because they find your futile attempt at hiding your breasts adorable, and make it very clear that modesty is not a concept familiar in their household. They flaunt and they demand, never quiet, never timid.

But when they step outside, the layers pile up, and the women I know are gone. I see scarves sewing their mouths shut, the intricate swirls and colours suffocating them, the soft cloth wrapping around their hair and pushing their heads down. I see djellabas pushing them to the ground like weights on their shoulders, hiding their pride and confidence, extinguishing the fire that was once in their eyes. They are quiet, reserved, and careful.

They ignore the wolf whistles and the boys on the beach. They ignore the catcalls and the men slumped on the sidewalks. I learn to do the same.

I ignore.

I ignore, and walk quickly, and keep my head down.


 


Firsts

Mabrooka Kazi

Pud pud. Plod. Thud.

            Sounds that find their way underneath my toasty warm covers. The strange rhythms and alien melodies whisper in my ears, urging me to get up, look up, stand up.

Wake up and see what’s happening in the world around me.

            My breath leaves a trail of fog on the frosty surface of the window pane, obscuring and distorting the view beyond. The pixelated imagery makes it seem as if I am squinting through the depths of murky water. It takes a moment for my bleary, bewildered brain to remind me to wipe away the condensation and then I see.

            I stop breathing.

            This is not the world I closed my eyes to.

            Silver and ivory, part and whole, frozen and melting, diverse yet infinitely repetitive, a creaking underfoot and a soundlessness.

            An army of precious pearls paratroops downwards. Like silent thoughts, flitting in and out of the mind, snowflakes whirl away in a spiral of white. Falling and stumbling over every obstacle, yet making everything into one.

            Equal.

            The world stretched in front of me is white and white and white. Blanketed in snow, the difference between the neighbour’s immaculate lawn and ours is indistinguishable. Buried beneath this thick layer, the shiny newness of the latest car in the street is concealed just as effectively as the rusts and dents of the junkers.

            Everything is pristine and unmarred by time.

Dummkopf.

Blödel.

Doesn’t she know that this isn’t packing snow?

Hasn’t she ever seen it?

            I begin to shake in fury, my vision blurring until all I see is red. A biting insult takes shape in mouth and my lips part when suddenly I have a much cooler idea.

            Raking my hand through the powdery snow particles, I scoop a handful and wield my weapon carefully.

            Then I step back, take aim, and hurl my snowball at the retreating figures.    

 



 

I’m so looking forward to my next Skype lesson with the school later in May. I’ll be teaching a ‘Diploma Programme Language and Literature’ class about authorial voice as it relates to intention through reason versus intuition.

 

 

 

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autumn leaves in pond

Why impatience is a GOOD thing

One of the criticisms commonly levelled against adults reading YA is that it is symbolic of a wider cultural problem: the fact that attention spans are getting progressively shorter and shorter. That a diet of skimming online has rendered us unable to devote the time and effort needed to appreciate deep, serious, proper Literature (note the capital).

And I agree entirely that our collective attention spans are altering and that this is having an impact on what we want from both art and entertainment.

Another criticism against YA that is often twinned with the first is that, as a collection of literature, it represents a ‘low culture’ form of entertainment for people who, because of their short attention spans, need instant gratification. Proper Literature (note the capital), conversely, requires patience – not to mention high-culture knowledge and skills – to be appreciated.

And I agree that sometimes art and entertainment are the polar opposites they’re often seen as. But I’ve never liked the snotty implications of dividing things into ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. I much prefer the more nuanced concept that people render the same objects ‘high culture’ or ‘low culture’ by their reaction to and interaction with them during both creation and reception. In one reader’s hands, Harry Potter is fluff. In another’s, it is the subject of quality scholarship.

More simply put, the world is what we make of it. Art is surely the zenith of this truism.

Our behaviour towards cultural objects is what renders them entertainment or art or, more commonly, a mix of the two. Do we spend time analysing a book? Do we read slowly, checking back to make connections? Do we relish the language? Do we think about the book after we’ve finished? Do we daydream our own stories from it? Do we think about the implications for the real world? Do we consider how and why a book works? Or do we simply read as quickly as possible to find out what happens so we can start a new book? Time allows us to elevate any cultural object. Time gives us the scope to think and, perhaps more importantly, imagine.

But do we have to be patient with the object itself for this to happen? It rather depends on the object. The idea that writers might want to make cultural objects as ‘efficient’ as possible is not antithetical to the idea of writing as an act of creating Literature. It takes precision and skill to edit out unnecessary material. Knowing what to take out is as important as knowing what to leave in.

One of the things I love about YA is the precision of the editing in so many of the books. The idea that our readers (teens or adults) may not want to dawdle unnecessarily or depart on pointless tangents pushes us to keep asking ‘What does this contribute?’ and ‘How can this scene do as many things as possible?’ and ‘How do we convey the max. with the least number of words?’ All of these things are as much about Literature (note the capital) as entertainment. The idea that baggy and long-winded books are necessarily more literary makes little sense.

And, yes, times and tastes have changed. I thought Middlemarch was fascinating but overly long. I would have got as much from it in terms of its literary value if there had been less to slog through – and it would have increased its value to me as entertainment at the same time.

After all, surely the ultimate goal is for people to take pleasure out of ‘quality’. Art and entertainment should, can and do go hand-in-hand – though only in the best books. Art and entertainment are not antithetical. And in this regard, sometimes impatience can drive Literature forwards, demanding that we do our best to make every word count, every page illuminate as well as entertain, not allowing us any slack.

The people who could read – and could afford books to read – used to almost exclusively be people with time on their hands: the idle rich. That was true from the birth of the novel until surprisingly recently. Cheap paperbacks and an increase in literacy changed things… Now lots of people read, but very few of them have the time to read as much as they’d like. There are so many demands on our attention, our time… and also myriad possibilities for entertainment. Not only are books competing with TV and computer games, but with other books. So is it any wonder that our patience is waning? We could be doing other things. We could be reading other things. Books can’t afford to ask us for any more patience than is strictly and absolutely necessary. And why should they?

If they do, why shouldn’t we turn to books that recognise that time is limited – that our lives are limited – and that, when we’re surrounded by such wonderful possibilities, we should be impatient to make the most of them. We should want to spend ourselves on the best books: those that give us the most with the least waste.

So let’s be impatient… to a point. Let’s all try to get the most out of life and the wonderfully diverse array of books that we can access (at least in the UK, where we have a brilliant, if threatened, library system). Let’s not waste our reading time on books premised on the idea that art and entertainment can’t and shouldn’t go hand in hand. Literature can and should be lots of things at once. That is the whole point. That is what makes it Literature with the capital. But we, as readers, are just as important as writers.

We need to be patient enough to read actively whenever we can. To be part of the act of creation. To collaborate with writers to bring Book-Worlds to life. Writers need to make their work open to this type of reading, but we’re the ones who have to follow through if a book is to become Literature.

We need to be active, not passive.

But we also need to be impatient when authors waste our time. We need to demand their best creativity in exchange for our own.

If that’s the type of impatience we’re exercising, how can it be bad? Isn’t it, rather, a refusal to waste ourselves and all the real and fictional possibilities before us?

bluebell wood light and shadow

Reading and writing as democracy: response to Anakana Schofield

There is much in Anakana Schofield’s recent Guardian article that I agree with; she makes three key points, and I’m with her (for the most part) on the first two. However, the third I disagree with entirely.

‘Third: why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?’

Is it really more important to learn how to read a novel than to write one? For those who want to write, it’s important to love to read (and, as Schofield says, read widely) but does reading always have to come first? Can’t the two go hand in hand, lessons from reading supporting writing development and lessons from writing supporting reading development?

Is it so very wrong that one of the things that readers want from writers is guidance on how they might become writers too? On the one hand, as writers, we know that there isn’t room for everyone to write. Or at least not to write and get paid. (Bear in mind here that one of Schofield’s key points, which I agree with, is that writers don’t get paid for a lot of their time and work: often people don’t even think this is unfair.) Be that as it may, shouldn’t writers still support and encourage readers who dream of writing too? Should we let self-interest dictate what we choose to give readers… especially if this isn’t what they want?

I think there’s something wonderful and truly democratic about people everywhere, with all sorts of backgrounds, wanting to write. For me, it says a lot about our society that we’re finally in a place where writing doesn’t have to come from money and privilege or even extensive formal education. I think that’s amazing. And I think people’s drive to write is to be applauded and encouraged.

What I don’t think is wonderful is when people want to write for all the wrong reasons and don’t want to spend any time trying to do it properly. But that’s a whole other matter. And, yes, there will be more people in that category as more people see themselves as both readers and writers (or at least potential writers). But it’s more important for building a progressive, liberal, open society that we encourage everyone to feel that they could write if they wanted to. That writing isn’t barred to them. That everyone with the right skills and the determination to do the best they can has a shot at success and reaching an audience.

As someone who specialises, alongside fiction, in editing human rights non-fiction, I find the third part of Schofield’s article disheartening. Yes, it’s difficult being a writer. Yes, there’s a lot you don’t get paid for. Yes, what people want is to learn how to become writers, potentially increasing the chances that you’ll get paid even less…

But should writers really feel that their audience can’t ask for what they want? That they should stand, solemn and silent, as writers impart their pearls of wisdom about how to read… including how to read their own work? I think this view appeals to a particular type of writer: one who feels they have authored a definitive text. One who feels in a unique position to explain how that text should be read.

I don’t feel that at all. I believe a text, when it is read, belongs to the reader and is created uniquely in that reading by the unique person reading it. Of course I’ve created the book that is being read, but I don’t own the reading itself: the process of transformation in which my words are turned into pictures and sounds and objects in the reader’s mind. That’s something that is jointly owned: that’s where my imagination and the reader’s imagination work together. That’s where who I am on the inside touches another person in the same way: at a level that human beings often struggle to connect on.

That’s why books are so wonderful: they mediate that process. And they do so across time, distance, language, culture… across all the trappings of society, finding a meeting point in what makes us most uniquely, individually human. (Which is not to say that books always appeal across time, distance, culture and language… but it is possible. And it’s truly is a form of magic when it happens.)

I guess the heart of the issue is that I don’t believe that there is (or should be) some hierarchy of quality as regards readings, with the authors at the top of the pile. Yes, some readings seem more interesting and/or detailed and/or knowledgeable and/or creative than others, but that doesn’t make them ‘superior’ is a general sense, partly because it’s all so subjective: what’s superior in a reading for one person is inferior for another. It’s subjectivity building on subjectivity, so feeling a need to put readings on a scale whereby some become ‘low culture’ and others ‘high culture’ defeats the beauty of imagination: that it can be truly democratic. Otherwise, that scrambling for position and authority makes a mockery of all the best that is human in reading and writing and imagining.

So I don’t think writers should tell readers that their job is to shut up about their own writing dreams and listen to the ‘masters’ (gender implications fully intended) declaim about proper readings and how readers might be better readers while still being passive listeners and receivers of literature. Not creators. And not a threat to writers’ income or position. Just a source of money and admiration.

I agree with Schofield that ‘contemplation of literature’ is vital, but why can’t space for it encompass the links between reading and writing? Why can’t those boundaries dissolve and with them the ‘politics’ of literature that separate people into writers, learned readers and ignorant readers? Why can’t we just talk about literature both as text and as process, open to everyone?

Which is not to diminish the fact that readers and writers do bring different levels of skill and knowledge and imagination to both activities… But skills and knowledge and imagination are processes too. If we say to people ‘these avenues are open to you: if you work hard and progress you too will have a chance at succeeding’, we’re not also saying everyone will become a writer: it’ll depend on both the work they put in and their innate ability. As it always does. But everyone’s work and innate ability will qualify them equally to try.

Ultimately, Schofield argues that

‘It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.

Is it? Is it really? It isn’t for me. I love reading. Of course, I do! It’s one of my favourite things. And I wouldn’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t do a lot of it and love it. But I like writing best of all. And that is why I am a writer first and foremost in my own mind. And why I think others should be free to strive for the same. Free and encouraged. Because a society in which all people feel they are allowed to write – to speak to the world in words fixed on paper – is a society that says anyone may work hard and talent may be found anywhere, and whoever they come together in should have the same chance of success.

Writing and Teaching Resources: Write like a Victorian by Emma Carroll

Huge thanks to the lovely Emma Carroll, author of the forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), for providing the first entry in the collection of writing and teaching resources I’ll be creating here.

Remember, if you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of the blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. 

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

Readers: do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

And now, over to Emma…

*

Write like a Victorian

Right from the start, I swore I’d write what I knew. I’d been a secondary school teacher for fifteen years, so I’d be writing for teens, about teens, doing teenage things. End of.

Not quite.

My debut novel, Frost Hollow Hall, which will be published by Faber in October, is in fact a middle grade historical novel. Contrary to what my students think, I wasn’t alive in the C19th. This wasn’t ‘writing what I knew’ at all. And yet my teaching job did play a huge part in it.

In AS English Literature coursework, students can opt to write creatively in the style of a Victorian novel. In order to deliver the unit, I had to know how to write this way myself. Gulp.

Suffice to say, in teaching my students, I taught myself, which for me is part of the magic of being in the classroom

How did we do it? Here are a few of my own tried and tested considerations when writing historical fiction. I’m sure there are better/ different ways to do it; these worked for me.

  1. Pictures: Photos or painting from the relevant era often tell a thousand stories. Very helpful for visualising characters, settings and dress.
  2. Literature: My students worked closely with a set text, which they had to know inside out. For my own purposes, I read widely: any adult or childrens’ literature from or about the era, news reports, websites, journals, biographies, I could go on!
  3. Historical practicalities: Be mindful of what can and can’t be done. Characters can’t text each other or turn on a light. Information will often be conveyed through letters or diaries, night scenes taking place in candlelight or under a moon. Also travel: how long would it take to get from A to B? Would your character have the means to embark on long journeys? Consider too how much things cost, what was available and how people might purchase them. This list is not exhaustive.
  4. Class and Gender: In historical fiction these tend to be foregrounded concepts. A character’s class will impact on their work, their dreams, where they live, what they do, how they look, and, all importantly, their ‘voice’. Before 1870, there was no formal education system. If your character can’t read or write, it may impact on how they receive plot information. Likewise gender: this is particularly significant for female characters. Consider the norms and values of the era, and how these fit with your character’s motivations. In her YA historical novels, Marie Louise Jensen overcomes this ‘constraint’ wonderfully.
  5. Language: A very obvious way to tell a book is old is through its use of language. Jane Austen writes in very long, grammatically-complex sentences: the Brontes use domestic and natural symbolism. Brilliant contemporary ‘Victorian pastiche’ writers such as Sarah Waters and Essie Fox use words no longer in common usage such as ‘casement’, ‘visage’, or ‘gaze’. I create my own glossary of era-appropriate words. A good copy editor will pick up on anything you’ve used that isn’t quite right.
  6. And The Rest: Plotting, character tropes, style, focus on intense personal experience, gothic, I could go on…

The end result? My students got great grades: I got a two book deal. The rest is history. (Fingers crossed!)

Frost Hollow Hall book cover

A ghostly tale about love, loss and forgiveness with an instant classic feel.

Emma Carroll is a secondary school English teacher. She has also worked as a news reporter, an avocado picker and the person who punches holes into filofax paper. She recently graduated with distinction from Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing For Young People.

Frost Hollow Hall is Emma’s debut novel. Told in the distinctive voice of Tilly Higgins, it was inspired by a winter’s day from Emma’s childhood. Currently, Emma is working on her second novel, set in a Victorian circus. Emma lives in the Somerset hills with her husband and two terriers.