Two of our writers describe their recent adventures in fiction with The Novelry. With thanks to Justine Gilbert and Sir Dexter Hutt.
From the Desk of Justine Gilbert.
The art of reversing everything you were taught in school about writing.
I was a teacher for 25 years. For the majority of my career, I was 'Head of English'. I knew my job, and the children in my care did well in exams. I taught KS2 English, GCSE English and I tutored A level English. I was also a dyslexia specialist. If you brought me a child that was underperforming, I could diagnose what was needed to help them improve.
I wrote short stories, poems, and children’s plays, some of which were performed. I read avidly - particularly children’s fiction and I advised pupils on suitable books to read. My writing lessons followed the National Curriculum. I taught many genres of writing: letters, journalism, speech writing, essay writing. My story writing unit went something like this: I drew a shape on the whiteboard which resembled the Matterhorn. I explained Beginning, Middle. End. Followed by: Set the Scene, Develop a Problem. Solve it. I avoided the word ‘climax’. (You had to watch for the double entendres that could destroy a class’s attention.) Sometimes I drew a line in the middle of the mountain, so that the picture resembled a capital A. This was the Sub-plot.
Next, came the opening paragraph. Setting. Use the five senses - sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. The second paragraph. Character. Hair, eyes, build, mannerisms. Do you remember these lessons at school?
Then - Use of Language. In addition to Sentence Structure and Punctuation - shortened to SSP - we went methodically through: Adverbs, Adverbial Clauses, Adjectives, Adjectival clauses, Alliteration, Simile, Metaphor, Repetition, Rhyme & Rhythm, Proverbs & Common Clichés, Caesura. There are at least ten more points, but you get the gist. After that came story structure: Theme, Motifs, Historical Background, Flashbacks...
I like to think my lessons were entertaining, but the reason I mention those topics was that all of them counted in the Marking Scheme. If you wanted a child or teenager to get an A++, all those factors had to be evidenced on the page. Looking at the list I wonder how Hemingway might have scored. Yet I taught children to make a mnemonic so that they would write using as many of these literacy devices as they could squeeze in. It went something like: MARACAS … They had to tick off each letter as they used them to get the required grade. Creativity was unnecessary. Originality - not needed as long as you didn’t plagiarise. And it worked.
A decade ago, I signed on to become a SATs marker. Two things worried me. One was that not a single teacher in the room gained full marks on the Reading Comprehension. The KS2 SATs valued the ability to infer from text and apparently none of the experts could infer with 100% accuracy. No surprise that the children fared little better in the actual exam. But my second qualm occurred when I was marking the writing. There were always three writing options for Free Writing. That year, one of them was: 'Write about something new that happened in Year 6'. In one school, every child in the class wrote about their new teacher. In their differing accounts, one thing was clear: she had had a profound effect. Many of the pupils wrote eloquently and received their due marks. But one boy’s writing was far below standard for his year group. He wrote something like this:
I was a norty boy untill Miss came. Now wen I am norty, she comes over to me and says Jon you have to try harder. And I give her a cheesy grin and I put my thum up and I say Yes Miss and she smiles at me. And I will try harder and I will be beter becos I now my teacher likes me.
He didn’t get top marks, but he brought a tear to my eye with the simplicity of his writing. I wanted to give his teacher - and him - a hug. But there were no marks possible to reward such purity. I wrote to the TES to question whether our exams were fit for purpose and they published it as a full article, but nothing changed.
Do you know why so many schools teach ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’ at GCSE? Because they are short. You can get a teenager an A to C grade without them ever having read the whole text. I understood what drove the curriculum and I worked within the government paradigms. I also saw its limitations.
Then in 2011, I wrote my first book. It was a blast. I loved every minute of concocting the story and I put it up as an e-book. Friends liked it, but I was under no illusion that it was well written. Oddly, I can now see it was reasonably constructed because I had modelled it tightly on an existing book. Success by accident. A few years later, I met a retired police officer, who told me hair raising stories about his work. I felt compelled to fictionalise his exploits in a novel. He was racist and corrupt and it was a tale that should have resounded with modern audiences. In other words, it was a red hot story, but in contrast, my prose was a deflated souffle. I did like my clichés and metaphors. I had a huge prologue with backstory, irrelevant to the main tale. I knew how to set scenes and draw characters but not where to position them. I’d never heard of a premise. What was that? So I wrote an exposé of corruption with a meandering tale. I had dialogue that varied from said to chuckled with adverbs galore. He hissed 'menacingly' and shouted 'loudly'. Well, it’s what I taught, wasn’t it?
I knew that my style was awry. I read a great deal and I had always told my pupils to read widely. You will write as you read, I told them. And The Novelry says much the same. But I ignored this when I wrote. I wrote as I had taught.
I have great ideas, I told myself, but I write like a teenager. What am I doing wrong? And then while searching for a course on creative writing, I came upon The Novelry. Here, I learnt to examine texts differently. I plotted books in a new fashion. I had never heard of the Five F’s of The Novelry, but it did not take me long to recognise the soundness of the structure. Modern audiences have little patience and that includes me. I want to be plunged into the story. I want to be shown the dilemma. In my writing to date, I had made frequent wrong turnings.
Schooling is whipped into shape by politicians. Popular writers complain about this. I worked hard at teaching, but now I am a writer and it demands the same attention. I have to unlearn everything I learnt and taught, and re-learn what is needed. The Novelry has introduced me to the new leaner, clearer prose for the modern market place. My head is down, nose to the screen. I am being taught. I write. I can learn from my mistakes. So I’m learning.
From the Desk of Sir Dexter Hutt.
OFF TO THE RACES.
Watching the two-year-old racehorses taking part in their first race at Goodwood this week caused me to reflect on my journey to become a writer. They had all been on the practice gallops, were all now poised and ready to discover their potential. But some of them were very reluctant to enter the starting stalls. The stall handlers coaxed, cajoled, blindfolded, turned them around, pushed hard. And still, some wouldn’t go in – indeed one or two were in the end withdrawn and did not come under starters' orders.
What has this got to do with my journey to be a writer? Well, I too have had many years on the literary practice gallops in my quest to become a writer. I purchased almost every book on ‘how to write’ – and made detailed notes. I read a wide range of fiction, I travelled to London to attend Guardian masterclasses, and I researched various topics linked with ideas for my novel. I had my study refurbished with an expensive chair to protect my back, and I bought a new computer. I was ready to go! And then frustration reigned. I just could not master the discipline of sitting down and actually starting to write a book. I would not, could not, enter the literary starting stalls.
Then Covid-19 happened. Golf, concerts, plays, and films no longer provided enjoyable but also convenient distractions to ease my conscience. And taking a long, hard look in the mirror, I knew it was now or never. Two glasses of red wine later, I had joined The Novelry, signing up for The Ninety Day Novel course.
I was not rushed into the starting stalls. The first phase of the course did what it promised – I really did have a week of motivation and inspiration. I was excited! On my first writing day, Tuesday 31st March, I had the obligatory cup of coffee and then trotted into my stall without a whinny or a whimper. I sat and wrote for an hour, totally focused until the oven timer – my study runs off our kitchen – signalled that the hour was up. I was relatively slow out of the stalls – three hundred words on my first day – but gradually built up speed to a more acceptable five hundred words daily.
And every day a lesson to inform, inspire, and motivate. I could not believe the treasure trove that I had stumbled upon. My fear was that I could work out a plot but not develop a character. So I changed my approach to the one of driving a car along a country road in the dark, the headlights allowing you to see so far at a time, but always moving you on to see farther. My characters began to develop a life of their own, and the headlights revealed the plot bit by bit. When I faltered in my literary race, my jockey, Louise Dean, provided words of encouragement that motivated and inspired: Isabel Allende’s “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while, the muse shows up, too,” I printed it off and pinned it to the wall of my study. I have found it to be true. Hemingway’s advice about the need to know the iceberg even if you are writing only about the tip has led me – as lockdown has relaxed – to visit two crematoriums that figure briefly in scenes from my story. I picked up speed as I ran my race, it was natural rather than forced; the timer found itself being set two or three times, and the word count became a regular 1000 words.
And I had a lucky escape. My initial idea had been stimulated by the subject matter of a major criminal case in the Midlands; I felt a reading of the case was essential research for my story to have verisimilitude. The response to my application for a transcription of the case was bureaucratic and slow; I was unsure whether to carry on writing or wait until I had read the details of the case. Louise strongly advised that I carry on, cautioning me that too detailed research can become a creative straightjacket. So I ran on with my story, and as the headlights showed me the way, and the imagination flowed, the relevance of the missing court case became fainter and fainter. Which was just as well, as when after almost three months the quote for the transcription arrived it was over £18,000. (Yes, that’s what I thought!)
I finished my first literary race last Thursday 24th July. I have written just over ninety-thousand words in under four months – having previously failed to write a thousand in four years. I know that the job is not yet done. I am mindful of Hemingway’s “The hard part of a novel is to finish it.” I will now go off to literary pastures and graze for the next month. And then I will trot excitedly into the starting stalls for my next race – The Big Edit. Bring it on!
And what do I think of Louise Dean and The Novelry? Sliced bread doesn’t even come close.
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