Droning On

by Andy Briggs

As a children’s author, I travel across the country between schools like a literary hobo, hoping to inspire children into reading more and maybe, just maybe, actually reading one of my own books.

When I started out I went to see other authors, stole tips and hints and prepared myself. The most horrifying thing I discovered is how some authors actually disliked such visits, but feel forced to do them. And that came across very clearly – the low mumbling drone of “it’s important to read” … mumble… mumble… “here’s an extract for the next thirty minutes,” mumble… it was hugely disheartening and quite surprising.

So, I set off with my own mishmash of tips ‘n’ tricks nicked and inspired by the other half of enthusiastic authors out there. Fuelled on coffee I made sure I was animated. Pacing around, flailing arms, and bellowing. At least it wakes the audience up. I bought a Fitbit and wasn’t surprised to see that most of the recommended ten-thousand steps were something I could do in a single hour presentation. I backed this up with some whizzy interactive presentations and… didn’t talk about reading at all.

Because that’s boring.

Experts say 55% of communication comes from body language, 38% from tone of voice – so I had that covered – and only 7% from actual words used. And the last thing kids wanted was to be told to do something. Yuk! And yeah, I was a reluctant reader when I was their age too…

So instead, I talked about the joys of writing. How you can discover new topics of interest. How you can never guess where your stories will lead you in the real world. I write TV shows, comics, films and books – but it’s all about writing and crafting the story.  And to do that, you have to have enthusiasm.

My first set of books talked about superheroes and I channelled my joy of comic books to the pupils, backing it up with stories of meeting the legendary Stan Lee. Then Tarzan came along and I could show them rainforests, riding elephants, meeting wild gorillas, being taken into the Congo jungle and other fabulous things I never thought I’d get to do… but did, because I wrote a story. My Inventory series danced around wonderous technology, world travel and supervillains – combining all my loves.

Throughout it all I talked about writing those stories. How that takes you beyond the page and into the real world to do things you never thought you’d do. Ever. I tell them to write books, songs, news articles, films, plays, musicals and (gasp!) computer games. And to do this they need to (gasp) play more games, watch films, go to plays… and of course, read.

My belief is that writing is reading by stealth. And it seems to work. I had done countless workshops around the country in which teachers have watched with astonishment as a ‘failing’ pupil reads out their short story in front of a class, then goes away to rewrite it and actually taken a book from the library to read, so they can improve their skills.

Enough droning on about what kids should be doing. Let’s show them what they could be doing and lay out the steps on how to get there. After all, there are far more professional writers in the world than professional readers… but they go hand-in-hand.

That means I’m always looking out for the kind of things that children find fascinating, mainly because I usually find it interesting too. That is how I stumbled into the world of drone racing – and instantly wanted to write a book on the subject. But could I make it interesting? The only way to find out was to go racing myself.

I remember watching Star Wars – I mean the original proper trilogy! Flying over the Death Star and through canyons and tunnels was truly thrilling. Maybe I could do that when I grew up? Cut to now, and I can. Flying radio-controlled drones against other racers is one thing – but putting on a virtual reality headset (and using my own phone as the screen), so I can see through the drone’s onboard camera takes things to quite another level. It’s as close as you can get to Star Wars excitement levels.

And it’s becoming a huge sport. Yes, sport. Sky Sports televise races, it’s played across the globe and in 2016 the UK’s very own Luke Bannister won the Dubai’s International Drone Racing Grand Prix with a tasty cash prize of $250,000. He was 15 at the time.

Through that fascination I wrote my latest Middle Grade novel – Drone Racer. About Carson, Eddie and their team engineer, Trix (call her Tracy and she turns mean…). They are startled to find a little drone in the scrapyard that talks back to them. She claims to be called Vanta, an artificially intelligent drone. Seeing a way to earn a little money over the summer holidays, our heroes enter drone races and soon realise that Vanta is not only the fastest thing in the air (despite her attitude problems), but she has an unfortunate secret…

No spoilers here I’m afraid. However, since Carson has lost his mum, Vanta becomes a motherly figure he can confide with. Ultimately, it’s a story we all face about wanting to be accepted for who we are. But behind the book are layers of rewrites, research and, equally important, enthusiastic fun. Writing each sentence was a joy not a chore. I was writing about something I enjoyed, and that’s ultimately what we have to show those reluctantly readers out there.

Let’s stop droning on about how you must read. Instead, let’s show them where it can lead…

This is a guest post by author Andy Briggs and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. Andy’s latest series of middle grade novels – The Inventory– is published by Scholastic. In September his new Middle Grade book, Drone Racer marks his 31st publication.

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