Jon Walter's critically acclaimed debut novel, Close to the Wind (published by David Fickling Books) was longlisted for the 2015 Carnegie Medal. Walter's second novel, My Name's Not Friday will be published on the 2nd of July, and in celebration of this, today we have a guest post from Jon Walter about the role Malorie Blackman and a creative writing class had in the birth of this new story, a beautiful and moving story about the power of belief and the strength of the human spirit, set against the terrifying backdrop of the American Civil War. In early reviews it's already been described as "an engaging and emotionally potent read" and "original, subtle and demanding."
Creative Writing Classes by Jon Walter
It’s been two years, eleven months and ten days since I wrote the first sentence of My Name’s Not Friday and I finally have a finished copy of the book in my hands. I wouldn’t normally keep the date that I begin a book but I know this one because that sentence was written during an Arvon Foundation writing workshop hosted by Malorie Blackman. She had asked us to write a piece in ten minutes, imagining ourselves in a dark place and using all our senses other than sight. I wrote 200 words in a moment of panic, knowing I needed to have something to read out if I was chosen. Those words are still in the book and can be pretty much read as they were written then.
I’m a big fan of writing courses but I know there are people who are not. The argument goes that great writing can’t be taught, that the writer possesses an innate talent that is unique and can’t be learnt. This seems a strange argument to me. If I wanted to make a table I would need to learn how to make joints. I could try to improvise my own way of doing it but there’s really no point re-inventing the wheel and anyway, acquiring a set of skills isn’t the creative part, it’s simply a means to an end.
I wrote my first book six years ago. I had always believed I had some talent and I had an idea I thought was good. I took some time off work and sat down and wrote. The novel took me six months to complete and it showed some promise. I sent it out to agents and their rejection letters agreed that the premise was strong and that my prose was good but they used phrases like, ‘Too much telling and not enough showing,’ or, ‘The plot is a little too quiet.’ I wasn’t sure what they meant but it was obvious that I was missing something. I signed up for a creative writing course and over the next two years I learnt many of the techniques that took the talent that I have and allowed me to use it to the full.
Now I have begun to take those same techniques into schools when I do workshops. They include important advice like using concrete nouns and verbs to create vibrant imagery or how to write realistic dialogue. Showing how to create characters will move younger writers into approaching a story empathetically and writing in 3rd person. These techniques might be basics but they are the foundation of good writing at any level and the younger they are taught the better.
Sometimes I feel that the teachers themselves are nervous of teaching creative writing - that they don’t know the ‘correct’ way of doing it. Basic writing techniques can give teachers the confidence to experiment with stories and the process of creating. I enjoy telling children that they don’t have to plan their stories out, that they can follow a thought and see where it leads. And of course they can always make changes once they’ve finished. In fact they should always make changes. It’s called ‘editing’ and all the best writers do it!
Recently, I listened to an 11 year old read out his work. He had described a ghostly ring of figures in a graveyard, but he left the image for a couple of sentences to take us inside the head of the hero so we could feel his reaction, before he returned us to the ghostly image that we were waiting to hear more about. I commentated that many professional writers wouldn’t have shown such good technique and he glowed with pride. It was all intuition on his part, undoubtedly learned from reading lots of books and loving them.
And of course, there’s no creative writing class around that’ll ever be a substitute for that.
This guest post was provided by Jon Walter. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children's Book Groups.
My Name's Not Friday by Jon Walter will be published by David Fickling Books on July 2nd 2015. You can read an interview with Jon Walter here. You can find Jon on Twitter @jontywalter, and also on Facebook.