Eleven years since I left school, and September still feels like back-to-school month. I feel as though I should be out buying new pens and novelty rubbers and things. I guess I did start a new notebook this month, so maybe that counts?
After festival-season in August, September has been a month of quiet work. I quite like months like this from time to time: a chance to get back on top of the admin, and quietly work away at the writing. Not too many events. The odd workshop. A chance to think.
That said, this month hasn’t been entirely without festivals. Last week I went to the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing in Haworth, with three other Cumbrian writers. It was a lovely festival: big enough that there was a really interesting range of speakers, but small enough that it was possible to go to everything. It also felt incredibly honest, with writers, editors, agents and booksellers sharing their experiences in a way that felt generous and encouraging.
One thing I took away from the weekend (other than a horrid cold – I guess that’s what happens when you visit the 19th century?) was to remember all the things I used to know. When you’re starting out as a writer, people will often tell you that you need to practise self-care, that you need to spend time focusing on craft and not to rush, that you need to celebrate smaller milestones along the way. But I’d forgotten a lot of that. My next milestone was ‘finish writing the second novel’. (Side-note: I haven’t even started writing the second novel yet.) That’s too much. A novel’s big; if I don’t get to celebrate success until I’ve finished the thing, then that’s a long time to wait. A person can get pretty down in that time. My decision? To set myself some markers in the interim. When I get to 10k words, for example, I’ll take a moment to be proud of that achievement. It’s about motivation. I may write a blog post about this in the future.
And speaking of successes, I haven’t been taking enough time to celebrate them lately, so here are a few that have happened over the past couple of months:
KSP residency: The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre is in Perth. Perth Australia, that is. And I’ve been invited to be their Emerging Writer in Residency in April 2020. Going to pack my strappy tops and flip flops! (Sorry, singlets & thongs.)
Gladstone’s Library Writer in Residence: Next May, I’m heading over the border into Wales, to spend a month writing at Gladstone’s Library. This is something I’m particularly excited about – partly because I’ve looked at pictures of the library, and it looks like the dream place to sit and draft a novel. But also because I’ve heard glowing recommendations, both for the library itself, and for their scones! Expect me to be significantly larger by next summer…
University of Canberra Poetry Prize longlisting: Another one with an Australian theme – I recently learned that I’ve been longlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize, which is announced at the end of October. Last year I managed to make the shortlist, so keeping my fingers crossed for this year. Either way, though, it’s a huge prize, so just to make the longlist is a fantastic affirmation.
Mslexia: And finally, this month I achieved a decade-long ambition, and got a poem into the most recent issue of Mslexia. It’s always lovely when a publication likes your work enough to print it, but there’s something particularly special about it when it’s a publication you’ve been aiming towards ever since you start to write poetry.
In the interest of balance, I should also say that I’ve received 17 rejections so far this year, out of 22 things I’ve heard back from. It isn’t all cause for celebration – which of course makes it doubly important to celebrate the good news when it does come along.
It’s been a slightly slower reading month than last month. I sometimes find it works like that, at least for me: that reading, like writing, comes in waves. Perhaps that means that next month I’ll read absolutely loads? Still, if you’re only going to read four books in a month, these are a pretty good four to choose:
Walt Whitman Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets)
Going into schools is something a lot of writers do, whether to give talks or to facilitate workshops. If your writing is aimed specifically at young people, it can be a great way to connect with your readership. Even if you write predominantly for adults, working in schools can still be hugely rewarding. But if you just go in without thinking it through properly, then it won’t be any good for anyone.
The first thing you need to ask yourself is: why do you want to go into schools?
Usually, we talk about what the workshop participants (i.e. the children / young people) are getting from the workshop. But I think it’s just as important to think about what you’re getting out of it as a writer. Because whatever reason you have for doing the workshop, this will impact what the children get out of it, too.
School visits can be lucrative. The Society of Authors publishes suggested rates for school visits (though be aware that these tend to be lower outside London, and a lot of arts organisations will have standard daily / half-day rates for delivery, which tend to be lower than this) – and as we know, when you’re a writer, money isn’t something to be sniffed at. So if part of the reason you’re doing a school workshop is because you need to pay your electricity bill, then that’s fair enough. After all, you need to fund your writing time somehow. But if money is the only reason for working in schools – if you don’t actually enjoy working with children, or you feel that it’s a bit of a grind having to get through the lesson – then you probably need to reconsider. After all, you can always pay your electricity bill by working in your local pub instead.
PROMOTING YOUR NEW BOOK:
This applies mostly to children’s / YA writers, because if you’re going into a primary school to promote your new erotic novel, then you need to think long and hard about your target audience. But school visits can be a valid way to promote your work. If you’re published by a traditional publisher, they may well be able to liaise with you on this (or may even organise these visits for you). If you’re self-published, you’re going to have to organise these visits yourself. Either way, remember that children tend not to bring enough money to buy books into school on a daily basis. If you want these visits to encourage sales, then you might want to liaise with teachers ahead of time, so that schools can organise for any children who want the book to ask parents and then bring the money with them. At the very least, send a follow-up letter home after the workshop, telling parents where they can buy the book.
GIVING SOMETHING BACK:
We’ve all had formative people or moments or experiences on our journeys to becoming writers. We’ve all had people who’ve inspired us. So it follows that a number of us will want to go on and inspire others on their own creative journeys. Obviously this doesn’t mean that everyone you teach will end up becoming full-time writers – but I think it’s important that that kind of creativity is given a place in schools.
BECAUSE IT HELPS YOU WRITE:
Sometimes, I get home from a school workshop and I’m dead on my feet. The last thing I want to do is to pick up a pen and write anything of my own. This makes sense – after all, I put a lot of effort and energy into leading workshops. But sometimes, I leave a school and I’m buzzing with ideas of my own. Often, children have much more ready access to their imaginations than adults do. Particularly primary school children, who still play regularly. And being surrounded by this kind of imaginative fire can be great for refreshing your own creativity.
So. What do you need to know going into a school?
Agree everything in advance. I talked a bit about this in last week’s post, but it’s worth saying here as well. Make sure you know before you arrive exactly what’s expected of you. How long will each session be? How many children will you be working with? How much are you being paid?
Set out your terms for teachers / organisers. This includes expectations such as there always being a member of school staff (teacher / TA / librarian) present during the workshop, and your window for getting paid. Setting this stuff out doesn’t have to be unpleasant or demanding – you can absolutely do it politely, and the payment info can go on your invoice – but it’s worth making sure everyone is on the same page before the day of the workshop.
Related to this: know your terms. It’s up to you what your terms are, but you probably want to know them before you set about planning the school visit (though of course, they may well be flexible once you start talking to the school). For instance, my general terms are:
Another member of staff must be present at all times during the workshop. (This is a safeguarding issue, but it also makes the workshop more productive, as there’s extra teacher support for the children.)
Maximum number of children in a workshop (usually around 30, ideally lower).
I charge travel expenses to the school: either a fixed amount or HMRC rates of 45p per mile, depending where the school is.
Payment should be within 30 days of invoice (unless otherwise agreed). I also make it clear on my invoice that statutory interest will be charged on overdue payments.
Cancellation policy: this isn’t something I usually set out explicitly, but it’s probably something I ought to do. For instance, what happens if I have to cancel, or if the school has to cancel, or if extreme weather makes the workshop impossible etc.
Check about photo permissions. The school may want photos of you interacting with their pupils, to use on the school website, so be aware of that going in, and if you have a particular problem with it, make sure you mention it. On the other side of the coin, if you want to take photos of the childen to use in your own publicity, make sure that the school has photo permissions for all the children involved, and check that this extends to you taking / displaying the photos as well. (If this is particularly important to you, you may want to flag it up in an email ahead of time – as some schools will have to get extra permissions in order to let you use the photos.)
Do you need a DBS? The general rule is that if you’re working with a group of children regularly, then you need one. But if you’re just conducting a one-off visit, where another member of staff will be present the whole time, then you don’t. The Society of Authors has some great clarification on this. Be aware that sometimes the school will ask for a DBS when you arrive, even for a one-off visit. If you have one anyway, then feel free to show it to them. If you don’t, then it’s good to know for certain that you don’t need one, and that you can direct the school to the Society of Authors, or the Department for Education guidelines.
We’re well into September, now. The new school year is underway, and with the initial rush over, some schools will be starting to think about getting writers in. And some writers & arts organisations will be starting to think about going into classrooms.
I’ve been going into schools to run writing workshops professionally for the past 6 years. I worked with schools, children and older young people on a voluntary basis for 4 years before that. I’ve seen teachers struggling under the weight of what’s expected of them. I’ve seen teachers who are hugely engaged and passionate about their job. (These two categories are, obviously, not mutually exclusive.)
I’ve run workshops that have been a joy to facilitate. I’ve had workshops where it’s been a struggle to get the children (and the teachers) to engage. I’ve run one workshop where I wanted to scream in frustration. (I may write more about these specific incidents in a future post.)
All of this has added up to a lot of thoughts on the relationship between a teacher and a visiting writer, both in the classroom, and before and after the workshop.
So I decided to write a couple of blog posts setting out some of those thoughts. Next week, I’ll give some advice about what writers ought to think about when going into schools. But for now, it’s the turn of the teachers:
Writers in Schools: A Few Notes for Teachers:
There are joys and pitfalls to teaching. Of course there are – and you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. On the one hand, that moment when a child finally gets something they’ve been struggling over? That’s the moment that can make your heart soar. But the pressure and the paperwork and the marking? I’m not surprised if that gets you down from time to time.
So here are a couple of notes on working with writers, that might make life easier for everyone:
1 – It’s supposed to be fun.
Whenever a visitor comes in, it’s exciting for the children. New faces always are. But it should be fun for you as well. This is a chance for you to learn something new as well. It’s an opportunity for you to think about writing & creativity in a way that doesn’t have to be goal-focused. It’s also a chance for you to see the children in your class engaging with work in a different way. It’s a chance for you to work more closely with some of the children, while somebody else is leading the session.
But all of this relies on you being present and engaged. Some of the best things I’ve experienced from teachers in workshops:
Helping the pupils to link what they’re learning about in the writing workshop with other things they’ve covered in class – particularly if something connects to a special topic. (For example, I was once running a winter-themed workshop based around Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Snow’, which the teacher helped them link to their project on World War I & remembrance day.)
Building a larger topic around the workshop & the themes it raises.
Displaying the work created in the workshop – either on the wall or creating a booklet of the work which goes in the school library.
Sharing the work produced at a special assembly – particularly if the rest of the school is there to hear it and / or the parents/carers are invited.
Sharing experience of the workshop with other teachers in the school.
And some of teachers’ most unhelpful behaviour has been:
Spending the workshop catching up on marking. (This is not PPA time.)
Talking to individual children (either about the workshop or, even more commonly, about a completely unrelated piece of work) while the visiting writer is trying to explain something to the group.
Leaving the classroom entirely to put up a display in the adjoining corridor.
Telling the writer (in front of the children) that poetry is pointless as they don’t have to write it in the exam.
2 – It should be enjoyable for the writer, too.
If a writer doesn’t enjoy working in schools, then they’re not the right person to be running the workshop. But just because a writer enjoys working in schools in general, it doesn’t mean they’re going to enjoy every single workshop. I’ve certainly had workshops that I didn’t enjoy – usually for the reasons listed in the point above.
Because 99% of the time, an unenjoyable workshop is not the fault of the children, but of the teacher. I’m aware that soudns accusatory, but the flip side is that, as a teacher, it’s almost totally within your power to make the workshop enjoyable for the writer – by making them feel welcome (talking to the writer in the staff room helps – I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in a staff room and been completely ignored for an entire lunch hour), helping the children to get excited about the visit, and making sure the writer’s job isn’t made more difficult than necessary. (Again, see above.)
3 – Treat the writer professionally.
There’s this weird myth that writers write solely because they enjoy it, and therefore don’t need to be paid. Ok, so the first part is generally true, but the second part definitely isn’t. Writing is a job like any other, and writers (just like everyone else) have bills to pay.
When you’re booking the workshop, you should agree the fee with the writer. Often, the writer will have a standard rate for a school workshop. (This could include travel costs, or they may charge extra for these. Similarly, they may charge extra for additional requests, such as incorporating a special topic, or doing a reading in an assembly.)
Most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.
I repeat: most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.
There are a few exceptions – such as when an author is promoting a book that they’re planning to sell to the pupils, or when the writer’s fee is being covered by a third party, such as a library or an arts organisation. But mostly, you should expect to pay. You’re paying for the writer’s professional skill and experience, after all.
Consequently, there should be a contract between the school and the writer – or at the very least, a written agreement of what the writer will be offering, and what the school will offer in return. (If the workshop is booked through a third party, such as an arts organisation, then they will have this agreement with the writer, and your agreement will be with the arts organisation.) It should be understood what will happen if, for example, the workshop has to be cancelled – either by the school or by the writer.
Unlike most teachers and school staff, the writer is almost certain to be working freelance – so it’s doubly important that, when the writer submits their invoice, it gets paid on time. It’s all about recognising the writer as a professional, and not leaving them unable to buy groceries that month.
4 – If you want something specific from a writer, don’t be afraid to ask.
Sometimes, it’s hard to find space for things like a writing workshop within the limits of the curriculum. Writers understand this – and although most of the time we don’t agree with it, we recognise that this directive comes from the government and not from the individual schools. We know that teachers, like most of us, never have enough time in the day.
But there are ways to incorporate a writing workshop into the regular learning day. The most obvious, perhaps, is to link it with literacy. I’ve run workshops within literacy sessions, incorporating a recap on similes / metaphors / kennings…
But I’ve also run workshops to tie in with special topics. You’re doing a class topic on the jungle? Or on Greek myths? Or on the Anglo Saxons? Or the Victorians? Or the arctic? I can run a workshop to tie in with this. (And yes, all of these are examples of topics I’ve run workshops on in the past, at the request of the teacher.)
Unless a writer is promoting a specific book (in which case, you’ll probably have a slightly different arrangement with the writer anyway), they may well be able to adjust a workshop to fit a theme. At the very least, you can ask. The worst that can happen is that the writer says it isn’t possible.
Of course, if you’re going to request something like this, make sure you do it when you’re initially booking the writer. In some circumstances, the writer may need to charge an extra fee in order to do this, as it might mean planning a whole new workshop, or working in a different way, so it’s good for them to know straight away so they can factor that into their quote to you. At the very least, you need to make sure you’ve made this request before the writer’s already gone and planned / prepared the workshop. And certainly don’t leave it till the writer rocks up on the day. (I’ve had this before. Needless to say, the teacher was greeted with a firm ‘sorry, but no.’)
5 – The children should be present in the sessions.
If you want a class to engage with a visiting writer, they have to be in the classroom (or the library, or wherever the workshop’s being held). Obvious, right? But the number of times I’ve got to a school to run a workshop, and half the class haven’t been present for a chunk of it, is staggering.
A common scenario is this: I get to a school to run a 1.5hr workshop over an afternoon. There are 30 children in the class. Once the register has been taken, about 5 minutes into the workshop, 10 of the children disappear. ‘They have IT on a Tuesday afternoon,’ says the teacher, ‘In groups.’ The 10 children are out for about half an hour. By the time they come back, the bulk of the introductory exercises are done, and we’re starting on writing our poems, leaving the 10 children struggling to catch up, and me having to rush them through the first part of the workshop in hushed voices so as not to disturb the rest of the class. Meanwhile, the next 10 children (who have just started getting into what they’re writing) are whisked away for their own half hour of IT. This happens with each of the three groups – with the result that none of them engaged with the full workshop.
I know this is common practice in schools – for different groups of children to be doing different things at the same time, and for children to be in and out of class for things like reading practice or extra maths or music lessons. I know that full-time teachers work like this all the time – and believe me, I have huge admiration for anyone who’s able to work like that.
But if you invite a writer into the classroom to run a session, they need to be able to run the whole session to the full group. As much as anything else, it just comes across as rude, and suggests the school places no value on what the visiting writer has to offer.
But it’s more than that. The workshop is an experience for the children. It isn’t like English, where there’ll be another English lesson next week. It’s a one-off. And sure, some of the children might just see it as a doss lesson – a chance to not worry about how a piece of work is going to be marked. But that playful imagination is important, and something we’re in danger of losing with the current curriculum.
And for some of the children, this could be a workshop they remember for decades to come, and which inspires them well into their adult career. I know this, because I was one of them.
Next post: Writing in Schools: A Few Tips for Writers
Summer’s pretty much over, and the nights are drawing in.
I always find this time of year vaguely comforting. Maybe it’s something to do with getting to light the fire now and again in the evenings, or digging the warm jumpers out of the bottom of the drawer, but I often feel very content on the cusp of autumn. And often very productive, too – possibly because I still associate it with beginnings and the start of a new school year, or because it’s a time when I end up harvesting a lot of vegetables from the garden. Or maybe just because the hectic summer is over and September tends to be a slightly quieter month: one for getting back into a routine before the year rushes too quickly towards its end.
Whatever the reason, I love it.
A Few Good Things:
Edinburgh Book Festival:
Following on from the epic library / bookshop tour of My Name is Monster straight after it came out, I’m now into a more leisurely spattering of book festivals, averaging at around one a month for the rest of the year. I said ‘average’, because this month there were two.
The first was Edinburgh Book Festival: a wonderful festival, which, in its own words, ‘welcomes around 900 authors from over 60 countries in more than 800 events for adults and children each year’. This year, two of those events were mine – or at least, partially mine.
The first was a discussion of My Name is Monster, chaired by novelist Angela Meyer, and followed by a book signing. The second was a special recording of Open Book with Mariella Frostrup, which aired on Radio 4 the following Sunday, and which you can listen to here. The programme was a discussion of what young people are reading and writing – and covered both YA fiction and millennial writers & readers. With such a broad topic, I felt like we barely even scratched the surface – and I don’t think I was the only one on the panel who felt we could have gone on discussing it for hours! (And a couple of us did just that afterwards on the benches in the authors’ area. So you know, if anyone fancies commissioning me to write an opinion piece on it…)
As well as the events, the festival also runs the First Book Award, which is awarded to a debut novel whose author appears at that year’s festival, and which is decided by public vote.
August’s other festival was a much smaller affair: Tidelines Festival, in Grange-over-Sands.
A new festival this year, Tidelines is a two-day festival run by Thornleigh Hotel in Grange. I was invited to give a talk about My Name is Monster in the evening, followed by a signing. But I also spent a good chunk of the day there, listening to the other talks and soaking up the atmosphere.
Also at the festival were some of the Dove Cottage Young Poets, running an open mic and busking with typewriter poetry: poetry written quickly on request to anyone willing to make a donation. Matt Sowerby also debuted his incredible one-man poetry show, about young people in politics, climate change, and mental health, which had the entire audience utterly rapt. If you see him performing anywhere near you, go and see it!
I’ve actually got back to writing this month. After a much-needed post-book tour break, I’ve started writing poetry again. Honestly, I couldn’t not. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true: I felt that itch to write, and I couldn’t ignore it.
Occasionally, I go through phases where I wonder what my life would be like if I weren’t writing – if I just chanelled those energies into something else instead. Blogging, for example, or travelling, or orchestrating arts projects to facilitate other people’s creativity. These are all things I do anyway, but things that I try and force to take second place in my life to writing. For a while, though, I let them come out on top. After all, you can’t write all the time.
In doing this, I got my answer: if I stopped writing altogether, I’d only start again. Either that or be totally unsatisfied all of the time.
What is it that makes me constantly yearn to record things, to interpret them, to think my way through the world by putting pen to paper? I don’t really know – but whatever it is, it’s definitely there. And finally, this month, I gave in to it. And I wrote.
The Month in Books:
I’ve read a lot more this month than I did in July. Partly because I’ve had a lot of free evenings, which I’ve been using to curl up on the sofa and read. I’ve also been snatching those rare sunny moments to sit with a book in the garden – not to mention the train journey up to Edinburgh and back (including a packed out train where the only available seat was on the floor, but never mind).
Surprisingly (at least, to me), I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction this month. I wanted to read books by Patrice Lawrence & William Sutcliffe before appearing on Open Book with them, so that explains three of the YA novels, but I’ve also been rereading Anthony Horowitz (for pure escapism that doesn’t involve a screen) and Philip Pullman (in advance of The Secret Commonwealth coming out soon, not to mention the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials). I love reading YA, because I love the way it can be well written and ‘literary’ without sacrificing story or character, and because of the way it doesn’t pull its punches where you might expect it to. Honestly, it isn’t something I read often enough.
Skeleton Key, by Anthony Horowitz
Never Say Die, by Anthony Horowitz
The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin
Primers: Volume 4, by Lewis Buxton, Amelia Loulli & Victoria Richards
The Gifted, the Talented and Me, by William Sutcliffe