Tag Archive | storytelling

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 9: Scene & Summary

Writing a novel can be a long process, and sometimes we writers can’t tell how the pace is going because we are too close to it. As much as I love having an outline from which to work, the important thing to remember is that it is – at best – a flat, two dimensional map of where the novel is going, and what the most important points in the plot are.

What happens when the writing of that plot doesn’t work as well in practice as it does in theory? Sometimes a particular section of my current draft which may have worked well in the outline, doesn’t ring true in the actual writing. If I can’t solve it immediately, I highlight that section on my outline, leave it and move on to the next plot point, which often shows me the way back to solving the previous problem.

If it doesn’t, then maybe the sequence of events is in the wrong order. Some writers do their outline on a series of cards – one scene per card – so the cards can be re-arranged if the order isn’t working. Personally, I don’t like using cards. I find it easier to cut and paste on my outline instead, but if cards work for you, then by all means use them.

Here’s a thought: if something is difficult or boring to write, then maybe it shouldn’t be in the book because it may be boring or difficult to read. It’s that simple: if there’s a boring bit I can’t write, then maybe it’s not meant to be written. Maybe the idea behind that scene or sequence needs to be reworked in another way.

So back I go to my original one-page synopsis and examine where that problem scene fits in the greater story. What happens before it? What happens after it? Is there a better way to get from one point to the next? Remember that every character has a desire, and has to overcome obstacles to get what he or she wants. If the obstacle isn’t big enough then the writer must either raise the stakes and make it big enough to count, or wipe it off the slate and get on with the story.

The writer must choose between scene and summary. Not every step of the story needs to be written as a scene; some can be summarized to move the reader forward to the next interesting bit. Ask yourself: What am I trying to say in this ill-fitting scene? Where is it supposed to lead to? If there is a better way to reveal what’s in it, then why is this scene even in the book?

If a lacklustre scene serves a definite purpose, then that purpose might be better presented in the form of a summary. Perhaps the characters need to go on a journey for a reason, but unless there’s something significant that the reader needs to witness along the way, or if the tension is heightened by the fact that they are being followed, then we don’t need to see every step of the journey, especially if it’s going to hold up the action and bore the reader. Rather end the chapter as the characters leave one place, and start the next chapter as they check into the hotel or arrive in the city where the next bit of action will happen.

While writing Benicio’s Bequest, I had a complicated sequence of events in which my two main characters travelled back and forth across the same section of Italy several times. By highlighting the problem areas in my outline, I was able to rework the sequence with one less travel hop, and turn one of them into a car chase, thus tightening the action and putting them in the right place in time for the final push to the finale.

Most plots need moments of quiet time to let the characters (and the readers) take a breath. In a romance this is often when the characters get to know each other better, but don’t linger there too long. Keep them on their feet and dancing through the plot, because that’s how it stays interesting. Plenty of time for them to get to know each other properly once they’ve saved the world!

It all comes down to a balance between pace and progression. Those writers who advise you to “leave out the boring bits” usually have a good grasp on how to keep an audience engaged. Keep the pace moving, while constantly advancing the plot.

What do you do with those lovingly-crafted scenes that don’t advance the plot, but that you’ve written so well and can’t bear to lose? Here’s my solution: I cut and paste them into a folder called the Dumping File. I tell myself that they are not wasted, and sometimes I even get to use bits of them in another part of the novel. I haven’t killed them, because they’re still there on my computer.

These deleted scenes form part of each novel’s backstory, and my own writing journey. Even though the reader doesn’t need them, I’ve still got them, kept all safe and cosy and protected. The dumping file for each of my novels is quite large – between 15 and 30% of the size of the finished novel – yet every bit of them turned out to be completely unnecessary.

Don’t waste the reader’s time with this unwanted waffle. They won’t thank you for it, and they might decide not to buy your next novel…

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Anatomy of a Novel: Part 3: Synopsis

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In this series on the writing of a novel, I’ve already covered setting here and characters here. Now comes the fun part of putting it all together into an actual story – the synopsis. Despite dealing with setting, characters and synopsis one by one, it’s important to remember that the creation of a novel never moves evenly, one complete step at a time. Rather, it is a mix of various steps taken bit-by-bit, and usually simultaneously.

Due to the wonderfully invigorating interruption of NaNoWriMo last month, it’s been two months since I last wrote a blog-post about this novel-writing process. It’s probably just as well that I waited an extra month before writing this, because the synopsis for my current novel evolved so much during the month of November.

Previously, I explained about the process of creating characters, and how they are invented to enhance and complement the plot. With all of the characters and their setting whirling around in my head, I usually sit down and write a one-page synopsis of the proposed plot action. There will be details to fill in later, more secondary characters and possible changes in setting, but the gist of it will be there.

I can’t create fully-rounded characters until I know what they’re up against in the story. Likewise, I can’t invent the perfect synopsis until I have a good idea of how each character’s own desires, goals, habits, quirks and fears will add to that story. The half-formed synopsis I have in my head can only be finalised once the characters have been fleshed out.

And once I begin writing the novel, it all changes even more!

I write romantic mysteries, so in all my novels there is a mystery which initially draws two unconnected people toward each other, changes all their immediate individual plans and forces them to work together. The solving of this mystery causes them to fall in love, keeps them on the trot and eventually makes them fear for their lives.

Along the way I’ll throw in some deception, betrayal and a bad guy who may or may not be likeable at first, and then I’ll wind it all up in a glorious Big Climax from which no one looks set to escape alive, but hopefully the relevant romantic couple will survive with only a few scars, and live happily ever after.

When I have my one page synopsis, I put it aside and start to create the finer points of the main characters. While I might have had an initial idea or two about them, they each need to have some kind of attribute which will later come to the fore when it is most needed but least expected. A kind of temporary deception between me and the reader, because at the crucial moment I want the reader to think: “Oh, of course this character would do that – I’d forgotten that he/she knows all about this kind of stuff/grew up doing that/spent his/her childhood in that environment, etc.”

I should also mention here that the Big Climax always ends up taking place in a completely different way from how it was first envisaged. This is not for lack of planning, but because so much depends on the characters themselves. Their evolving goals and motivations inevitably change as I write and sometimes they steer the action in a different direction.

In my current novel Oxford Baggage the heroine is left a dubious legacy by her late ex-husband – the guardianship of his daughter from a previous marriage. It’s 1955 and Amy has felt bored and directionless since her secret government work ended at the close of the Second World War. She must now travel back to Oxford – the scene of her unhappy marriage to David – and live in his house as stepmother to his sixteen year old daughter for the next nine years until the girl reaches the age of twenty-five and gets her inheritance. That’s the set-up.

The mystery? Victoria – the stepdaughter – believes that her father was murdered. The love interest? There are two men: Simon, the lawyer dealing with David’s estate; and Richard, the younger brother of David and uncle to Victoria. Both men have secrets from the war, and Amy is attracted to both, but could one of them have caused the accident that killed David, as Victoria suspects? Or is Victoria just being difficult and trying to stir trouble?

When I wrote the original one-page synopsis for this novel, I had no idea about the character of one of these men. By the time I reached the 50,000 word mark at the end of November, I had a better idea of who he was, but I had also realized by then that the entire character of the other had changed along the way.

One of my major settings for the novel became largely redundant during the writing of the first draft, when I discovered a setting closer to the heart of the novel, which in itself opened up a channel of history that, when explored, became a far better choice for the plot I had in mind.

And if that sounds complicated, wait until we start expanding that one-page synopsis into the outline!

The outline is the most important document apart from the manuscript itself, because it will serve as the blueprint for the novel, from day one of writing, until I push the Publish button to turn the finished manuscript into an eBook months, or even years, later.

However, that outline cannot happen until there is a precise, concise, well worked out synopsis. And in the writing of a synopsis, nothing is sacred, nothing is set in stone and nothing continues as it was started…

Winning NaNoWriMo – the Pros and Cons

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Well, it’s over at last and it was an interesting experience. I clocked up 51,106 words in 28 days, with an average of 1703 words per day. Despite the progress made so far, my story is nowhere near finished.

Would I do it again? Yes, if the time frame of starting a first draft ever coincides with the beginning of November again, I will probably join up and give it another go. It’s certainly a good way to get the writing juices flowing.

So what have I learned from this experience? Having now proved to myself that I can write over 50,000 words in a month, next time around I wouldn’t attempt to finish the actual draft, but would choose from the start to view those 50,000 words as only part of a draft.

First the good stuff:

  • I needed to do this, and I’ll always be glad that I joined in and did my best. I had been in a bit of a rut and had been procrastinating for a few months about starting my next novel so NaNoWriMo gave me the incentive to sit down in October, thrash out a storyline from my original synopsis, and flesh out some characters.
  • It gave me a deadline by which to get my initial research done, so that by the end of October I was as ready to roll as it was possible for me to be.
  • The build up to it was fun – signing up to the website and finding some writing buddies, getting emails of encouragement and so on, made it all very festive and encouraging.
  • During the month of November, NaNoWriMo literally gave me a reason to wake up early each morning and write at least 1,667 words before the day intruded with its problems. I had been busy with a soul-annihilating job-search for the previous four months which was – quite frankly – depressing, and I needed an injection of fun in my mornings, but was still free to job-search each afternoon.
  • NaNoWriMo also allowed me to plough through two thirds of a first draft faster than I’ve ever done before, and that’s quite an exhilarating feeling.

And now we come to the not-so-good news. First, some background:

When writing a novel, no matter how prepared I am (and I was for this one, I promise!), there will always be new ideas that I think of along the way. This happens to me every time, and it’s a good thing. It means I am thinking on my feet, leaving a certain amount of the story to chance, and definitely open to new ideas.

It also means that, while I’m writing, I need to adapt my outline constantly as I find new bits to put in. And I need to research those bits before I put them in, because there’s nothing more time-wasting than writing screeds of stuff that I imagine to be possible but haven’t had the time to research properly yet. It’s all very well to type in the words: “research this bit later” and carry on writing, but I don’t want to find out 20,000 words down the track that it’s just not going to work.

Ask anyone I’ve ever worked with and they’ll tell you that I really do hate doing a job twice because some idiot didn’t think things through properly the first time. When that thoughtless idiot turns out to be me because I was trying to keep to a pre-determined word count, I want to spit blood and rage at the universe for allowing me to screw myself around like that. And none of that contributes to making me a happy writer.

It’s worth taking a week (or even longer) to rethink, re-research and rewrite the bit that doesn’t work in order to progress towards a product that is ultimately better.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • In Benicio’s Bequest which is set in Italy, I swapped around a trip to Venice and a trip to Florence because the story flowed better when I re-thought that sequence. This involved a certain amount of re-plotting and re-writing of two whole sections, and it all had to be done before I could move on to the next sequence because any change like that has a knock-on effect. The new sequence also gave rise to a car chase that hadn’t been in the original storyline but turned out to be one of its highlights.
  • In The Trojan Legacy I planned the first part of the historic half of the novel to be set in the mountains of Peru, in the jungle near Machu Picchu, but 12,000 words into the first draft I knew it was never going to work because I didn’t have enough personal experience of that place. I decided to re-set that part in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa which I knew well (and which was one of the settings for later in the story anyway), but it took me a week to reshape the beginning of my story and rewrite that section before I could continue.

So what did NaNoWriMo do to me that prevented me from letting my first draft develop naturally? Here we come to the bad stuff:

  • After two weeks of writing according to my word count I hit a snag at the beginning of the third week. I realised that I needed to research some British history about Elizabeth the First’s persecution of the Catholics, and the construction of secret passages and priest holes in buildings of that time. This took me almost two days and set my word count back considerably. If this had been a normal first draft and not a NaNoWriMo first draft, I wouldn’t have let the lost days and lack of words worry me, but in running to catch up afterwards, my writing became sloppy and sub-standard.
  • One of the other problems I had with the fast pace of NaNoWriMo was that this re-structuring and rewriting is part of what makes writing enjoyable for me. I enjoy the craft of creating something that grows organically and plots its own path no matter what my outline says it should be doing. When this happens, the last thing I want to do is rush to catch up and lose the magic of those moments and the added value they bring to the story.
  • Another of the ultimate joys of writing is when my characters decide to race off on a different path and I have to follow them to find out what they’re up to because they refuse to listen to me or let me dictate their lives. (This is how I ended up with an unscheduled car chase between Florence and Verona in Benicio’s Bequest.) In my current novel, however, my poor strait-jacketed characters haven’t yet had a chance to break out of their constraints.
  • No matter what writers tell you, we all have imaginary conversations running through our heads. The characters converse and the writer has to lunge for pen and paper or phone to scribble it down as fast as those voices are spewing it. This is a sign that our characters really do have a life of their own outside of what we created for them. I remember chuckling at whole discussions between three of the characters in Benicio’s Bequest as members of the same family bickered and argued about past events and what to do next. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen very often in this draft.

So how was I able to make NaNoWriMo work for me during the third week? My mood of hopelessness only changed once I realised three things:

  • I don’t write short novels. My novels are always longer than 50,000 words. They end up between 80,000 and 98,000. The last novel was 92,000 when finally ready for publication after ten drafts, but its first draft had been 66,000 words.
  • Come the end of November, my draft wouldn’t be a complete draft, even if I reached 50,000. There would still be at least another 25,000 words to write just to get the basic draft down, and I could fix a lot of things then.
  • It was okay to write two thirds of a draft for NaNoWriMo, because it left me enough of the good stuff to play with after the end of November.

With two thirds of the first draft already done, I can now afford to relax a bit, go back and fix things and make some changes where they are needed. I can research at my leisure and take my time with the climax and finale.

I’ll keep you informed about my progress as time goes on, so watch this space…

The Five Objects Formula

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When I was young, my dad belonged to a film club which used to have “Five Objects” competitions every few months. The filmmakers would be given a list of five completely unrelated objects, and they had to make up a story which included all five things. Each filmmaker had to film their own story, edit it, lay the soundtrack and screen the finished product on the night of the competition.

The objects could be introduced in any order, but they had to be more than just arbitrary set dressing in the background – they had to actually play a part in the story. My dad was a good filmmaker and he had a vivid imagination, so his films always did well in those competitions.

I remember the fun we had making the first one. The objects were:

  • a pound of sausages
  • a briefcase
  • a bunch of keys
  • a screwdriver
  • a piece of string.

For days my dad puzzled over scenarios about dogs running off with sausages. Which of our dogs would we use? How could we train it to do something like sausage-stealing and yet prevent this from becoming a habit? And so on.

One morning, one of my dad’s work colleagues ranted to him about the wasted evening he and his wife had experienced the night before because an encyclopaedia salesman had come to his house and bored them almost to death about how they needed to invest in their children’s future by buying a decent set of encyclopaedia for their home. (Yes, this was the 70s when such things existed.)

This gave my dad the spark he needed and before long he had his story:

  • Housewife preparing a pound of sausages, putting them into the frying pan and setting it on the stove.
  • Doorbell rings. She leaves the kitchen and goes to the door.
  • There is an encyclopaedia salesman on the doorstep. He talks his way in with his briefcase of book examples and his car keys.
  • Once inside her lounge he doesn’t stop talking, impressing upon her how important the books will be to her family, blah, blah.
  • She tells him she’s not interested. He takes a long time to accept this, but finally packs up the books and puts them back into his briefcase.
  • Unseen by him, he catches the edge of his key-ring in one of the books and the keys go into the briefcase too.
  • The salesman picks up his briefcase to leave but can’t find his keys.
  • As he searches, the housewife suggests they may be in his briefcase. He tries to open it and realises that he can’t because it’s locked and the keys must be inside. He’s in despair.
  • She tells him not to worry and leaves the room. She comes back with a screwdriver.
  • The salesman forces the lock of the briefcase, retrieves his keys with great relief and then realises that he can’t shut the briefcase because the lock is broken.
  • The housewife leaves the room again and comes back with a long piece of thick string. Together they tie the string around the briefcase…
  • … and that’s when she smells the burning sausages and runs from the room in the other direction.
  • She runs back in, holding a smoking frying pan, and yelling at him. He picks up his briefcase and his keys and runs out the door with the angry housewife in pursuit, still holding the smoking frying pan, trailing smoke behind her.

Sometimes my dad would throw his ideas around and ask us for feedback, and when he had the story ready to film, we would all be on hand to move furniture around, help with finding props, move lights on stands, and even become part of the background if he was filming on a not-busy-enough street (which wasn’t necessary with this one).

For this story – which he called “The Salesman” – he had a great cast: the housewife was played by my mother, and the salesman was played by my dad’s work colleague, complete with three of the books he had been talked into buying for the future of his children. (He knew exactly how to do the salesman talk because he had been duped by it himself.)

My dog even had a cameo role running up to the gate as the salesman left. (At least we didn’t have to teach the dog how to steal sausages.) We used burning rags for the burning sausages and ate the real ones for supper that night.

I know this isn’t the place to wax lyrical about how much I loved all of this – living out my own movie-set/backstage fantasies – but long before we reached the actual filming of any of the stories, we had the fun of dreaming up scenarios like this, thinking of ideas to suit other lists of objects. I’ve been doing this my whole life, really – and I never get tired of it. It finally occurred to me not so long ago that it’s a good way to build up a basic story for a novel.

It’s always fun to throw a bunch of seemingly unconnected bits and pieces into a crucible of some kind and see what comes out of it. If I look at five basic objects or ingredients for a good story, they would have to be:

  • an interesting place
  • a little bit of history
  • a hint of danger
  • an historical artefact or work of art
  • the timeframe or deadline of a ticking clock.

Add into the mix two characters each with some kind of desire (and because I write romance they need to later develop a shared desire for each other), and a bad guy with crazy ambitions, and there’s bound to be a story worth writing.

I love all these enticing ingredients and the challenge they present. I’m a writer of long, rather than short, stories – I have too much that I want to throw into the pot.

When I look back at all of my successful novels, each one has those five ingredients. Even my historical novella From Daisy with Love (which is a romance but not a mystery), has all of the ingredients – the historical artefact would be the box of written letters and objects for a future generation to find, and the bad guy (although slightly removed) would be Kaiser Wilhelm II who was responsible for the war which changed the lives of all the characters.

However, if I look at my two earlier trunk novels it is now easy for me to see why they didn’t work and were never good enough to be published. They are both missing several of the vital ingredients. One day I still mean to re-write both of them but don’t hold your breath because newer stories pop into my head all the time.

To those who love reading books written by others: do you recognise any of these five ingredients in your favourite books? I do. Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Forgotten Garden, The Goldfinch, My Brother Michael, The Girl You Left Behind, and so many more, from the Amelia Peabody series right back to some of the Enid Blyton books I used to read as a child.

To any writers reading this: what five ingredients do you consider essential in your novels?

An Open Letter to Sir Peter Jackson

Hi there – you don’t know me, but I wish I knew you. I sometimes feel as if I do, but maybe that’s because I’ve seen many of your films, and we share a birthday. Well, technically we don’t – I was born two days before you in South Africa and you were born in New Zealand and given the time difference that probably makes me closer to three days older than you. Anyway, never mind that. Let’s just say that we were born a few days apart in the same year.

And we both grew up loving movies.

Growing up loving the movies – what better place for a child in the 60s! By the end of the 70s, as I was nearing the end of high school, I was hooked on plays, drama, ballet, art and movies. And then came Star Wars. Yes, the original. Not Episode this or Episode that, but the one and only. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Suddenly I had a new hero. I was ready to give up all my dreams of drama and university and run away, stow away on a ship or plane to America, hitch-hike across that land from New York to California, find my way to Van Nuys and throw myself at the feet of George Lucas at Industrial Light and Magic. I would do anything – sweep the floor, make the tea – if he only allowed me to be close enough to the demi-gods of special effects; the archdukes of animation; the moguls of model-making and stop-motion. I could have lived on the very crumbs of knowledge that they discarded, if only I was allowed to exist in the same place as those immortals whom I yearned to watch creating their masterpieces…

But it was not to be. Instead I went to University, worked hard and began a career sweeping the floor and making the tea in some of South Africa’s best theatres. Thirty years later I’m still doing it. (I have five really great brooms, several mops and an awesome squeeze-mop bucket contraption that I guard with a fanaticism reminiscent of Smaug over his hoard of dragon gold!)

I’ve honed my tea-making skills over the years too, and I’m more house-proud about my stage than I am about my own home, but sadly the only painting I do is not connected with model making or animation. After every production in the theatre where I work, it’s my job to repaint the stage floor to a low-sheen black before the next show moves in. Exciting stuff, huh? Welcome to my world…

…and then came Lord of the Rings.

Of course I’d read the book way back when I was young, and I’d even seen the Ralph Bakshi animated film of the first book, but for me it hadn’t matched up to the images Tolkien had created in my head. Like many people of that time, I had believed that a film of such an epic story could never be made. Again, like many people, I re-read the three volumes every few years just to remind myself of how great Tolkien’s vision was, and each time I re-read it, I learned new lessons at my stage in life that I hadn’t thought about before.

But I digress. Not unusual for a dreamer like me. Back to you, Peter Jackson. Sorry, that should be Sir Peter Jackson.

When your first LOTR movie hit the screens, I was amazed that someone had not only dared to do what couldn’t be done, but I was even more blown away by the fact that you had succeeded where so many others might have failed.

Not since my teen dream of running away to join Industrial Light and Magic had I fallen so utterly for the notion of running away, giving it all up and throwing myself on the mercy of someone in the movie-making business. Yes, I would have followed you, Peter Jackson, in a heartbeat. I would have followed you, my brother, my captain, my king…

But this time it wasn’t just for the special effects, the model-making, the revolutionary motion-capture or even the exotic locations. No, it was for the writing. Yes, Tolkien had penned a wonderful story, but it was what you did with it that made it come alive.

For the first time I began to research the nature of screenwriting, and why some things that work in books don’t translate to the screen. Along with your two co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, you had worked tirelessly to capture the essence of what the story was about in terms of individuals in a world beyond their control. Despite the film’s grand scale and epic tale, the very human-ness of the characters was what propelled the story.

The words that Sam says to Frodo near the end of the second movie, “There’s some good in this world, Mr Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for” became a sort of mantra for me. I’m not completely certain whether these are Tolkien’s words or yours, but either way they echo Tolkien’s sentiment and you stayed true to the book.

I began to read all the books about screenwriting that I could get my hands on, because they gave me a deeper insight into the nature of story and storytelling.

Eventually, of course, this led to novel writing. I still use screenwriting structure for the novels that I write, and when I read a great novel that later dies on screen, I analyse the film in terms of that structure to find where the problems are.

Since becoming a Jackson fan, I’ve also tracked down some of your other movies. I loved Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners but I wasn’t that wild about King Kong. Maybe that’s because I’d never particularly liked the story. The romantic novelist in me has this notion about happy endings, and we all know that no matter what you do with it, you can’t give a story like that a happy ending.

(Ditto The Lovely Bones which I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t seen for the same reason. Please don’t feel bad; I couldn’t get through reading the book either. I won’t attempt the book again, but maybe I will watch your movie of it one day.)

Oh, and by the way – I just love what you did with The Hobbit. Yes, all three movies. I have the first two on DVD and will get the third as soon as it comes out where I live.

Sometimes I’d still like to run away to New Zealand and throw myself at your feet, Peter Jackson. Not because I’m a crazy stalker lady, but because I’d love to learn from you everything that you have to teach me about storytelling. In the meantime, I would happily give my all to sweeping your floor and making the tea at Weta Digital or Wingnut Films. Heck, I’d even get out the broom and rake and apply my sweeping and tidying talents to the gardens of Hobbiton if I could. I’ve been there as a gawping, bug-eyed tourist and loved every second of my visit.

So, Sir Peter Jackson – how about it?

The Magic of Stories About Christmas

One of my earliest memories of Christmas was when a favourite aunt (who always gave us wonderful presents) gave my sister and I each a copy of Clement Moore’s famous poem The Night Before Christmas in the form of a book, beautifully illustrated by Florence Sarah Winship. These books were presents that we were allowed to open on Christmas Eve (all other presents had to wait till the next morning). They subsequently became part of every Christmas Eve thereafter, because before long we both knew the poem by heart and could recite bits of it at random.

One Christmas Eve we dressed up as fairies (or was it elves?) and recited it to our parents from each side of the fireplace, next to the Christmas tree. We had copied the poem out onto handmade scrolls which we rolled importantly from one verse to the next. Some of these we spoke together, others individually. Rounds of applause followed and although the presentation may have been a little rough, we were extremely proud of ourselves!

Years later while browsing in a bookshop, I found a newer copy of the poem, this time illustrated by Tomie de Paola. Of course I added it to my book collection. Sometimes during the pre-Christmas season I page through both versions in order to re-live a little of that magic from so long ago.

I must have been about twelve years old when a teacher read us the Reader’s Digest abridged version of Norah Lofts’ How Far to Bethlehem? We were in a Christian school, so the whole class knew the story of the Nativity, but it was the different way in which it was told that appealed to us the most.

My imagination was fired up by the thought that I was getting some insight into the lives of those mysterious humans from far away, the Three Wise Men. Who knows who they really were? Wherever they came from and wherever they went afterwards, for a few days their visit to that stable has made them part of the story that has been handed down, in one form or another, for over two thousand years. No matter which way you look at it, there’s a good story there…

This brings me to another favourite book which I found in the children’s section of a bookshop a few decades back. Having no children myself, my justification for buying it was so that I could read it to my sister’s children. I did. They’ve all long since grown up, but every year I take out that book and re-read it because I love it so much. It’s called The Witness, written by Robert Westall and beautifully illustrated by Sophy Williams.

The Witness appeals to me because I love cats. It’s a secular story of an Egyptian cat far from her home, who gives birth to two kittens one harsh winter’s night while sheltering in a stable. Afterwards, she sees another mother – a human – who has given birth to a baby boy in the same stable. As a cat, she also sees the glorious angels hovering above the family of humans. The angels are amused that the animals can see them when the humans can’t.

Some days later, after the kittens have grown a little, there is a visit from three rich men who bring costly gifts for the human baby. They have travelled through many lands and recognise that the cat is from the temples of Egypt. They also warn the humans about King Herod before they leave.

The baby’s father later tells his wife that he has had a dream in which he was told to take the cat back to her home, but he doesn’t know where she lives. His wife points out that the cat is Egyptian, so the little family prepares to make the long journey to Egypt with all three cats…

To me, the magic of good storytelling is to take a story that may be familiar, but to tell it from a different point of view and provide a good twist to what might be a well-known ending.

Wherever you are this holiday season, and whether or not you celebrate Christmas, may you have a peaceful time, and enjoy reading!

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What School Taught Me About Teachers

Most writers know why they write, but how many of us ever stop to think about the first people who put us onto that path? Despite coming from a family of storytellers, I couldn’t have done it without certain teachers.

My mother always wanted me to become a teacher because the teaching study loan was the easiest way to put myself through university, but I’ve never been the teaching type. Not only do I get tongue-tied when addressing any group of students larger than six or seven, but after my own twelve years of schooling I can count on one hand the teachers that actually inspired me.

This is your cue to take a bow: Mr Dean; Miss Harris; Mrs Patrick; Miss Dreyer and Miss McLean – because the five of you made school worthwhile.

I always knew that I would never match up to those few teachers and anything less would have been criminal to inflict on a new generation of scholars. As for the worst teachers (named and shamed later in this blog-post), it has always been my hope that they would eventually rot in hell for their meanness and the bullying that they inflicted on countless children and for which they should have been punished but weren’t. If they tried any of their tricks in today’s world, things would be different. Just saying…

But for now let’s concentrate on one of the good ones.

Ralph Dean was the most feared teacher in my primary school. His shouting could be heard across the entire school, reverberating off of prefabricated walls and echoing down windswept corridors. For six years I lived in fear of being put into his class in my final year. I hoped and prayed that my teacher would be the elegant Mrs Goosen whose voice was never raised beyond the confines of her classroom. But it was not to be. On my first day in what was then called Standard Five (year seven and the last before entering high school) I was on Mr Dean’s class register, not hers. Only my jelly-quivering knee-caps prevented me from running away and joining the nearest circus.

I soon found out that it wasn’t so bad. That terrifying voice – so long feared – could also be raised in laughter, and in high drama, such as when he read us The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mr Dean discovered by chance that most of us had never heard of the book, let alone read it, so he brought in his copy and began reading it to us in the last fifteen minutes of every school day. We were captivated and transported to the world of Narnia, just as Clive Staples Lewis had intended.

Mr Dean acted out all the characters in different voices: his Wicked Witch was truly terrifying; his Aslan magnificent and his Mr Tumnus tragic and remorseful. As he rampaged up and down the aisles of our classroom, I spared a thought for the terrified youngsters in the years below us, quaking in their socks at the sound of that booming voice and fearing their own Standard Five year to come. They didn’t know the treat they were in for!

The voice wasn’t all. We had learned to write in cursive writing a few years before, and one teacher had taught us to write “light up, dark down” which lent our writing an almost Italic look. Mr Dean offered to stay after school one day a week and teach anyone who wanted to learn the finer points of Italics and other calligraphy. Armed with new fountain pens and special nibs, a few of us kept it up to become the envy of others and were available to do titles and special lettering on the projects of those who couldn’t quite get their fingers around the new capitals and fancy tails.

Mr Dean also did the Standard Five play every year. As in: he chose it, directed it, built and painted the set for it. He also encouraged anyone who was interested to join in on any level. As a timid ballet-girl, I auditioned but didn’t get into the play itself. However, my fascination with all things theatrical led me to sit in on the rehearsals almost every afternoon. Eventually, he offered me the small part of “A Lady” in the final scene. I had two whole lines to shout amidst the general tumult. I’m sure no-one heard them, but the important thing was that Mr Dean had heard my unspoken, secret wish, and encouraged me to take up something I hadn’t had the guts to try before. And look where that eventually led me!

He also responded to another not-so-secret wish of mine. As a class composition exercise he would often start a story and make us think up and write the rest of it for homework. I took this to heart, frequently using up all the pages in my composition exercise book in spinning out some extravagant yarn. My book would be handed in the next day with pages from my mother’s writing pad sticky-taped into the back of the book so that my story could reach its dramatic conclusion.

Did he rant and rave for my wastage of my mother’s paper or his time? No, he encouraged me to use my imagination and write even more. All these years later, he is the one I thank most for his encouragement of my storytelling and writing.

Here’s another important thing that Mr Dean did. Or rather, didn’t do. In the first six years of my school life, several of us suffered at the hands of certain teachers who were vindictive bullies. (Yes, that would include you – C Brown and B Smith!) They took great delight in picking on the weaker ones “as an example” and even more delight in continuing to bully the same children long past their original misdemeanours, and encouraging classmates to do the same with impunity.

I was somewhat relieved the other day to read on Matthew Wright’s blog that he had a similarly awful primary school experience on the far side of the world, so it wasn’t just my school. Seems that it was a pattern back in the sixties.

Worldwide or not, this pattern of horror continued for six whole years, stopping only in my seventh year – with Mr Dean.

Mr Dean was strict but he didn’t hold grudges. A boy who had been sent to the headmaster’s office to be caned (yes, it was back in those days) came back with red eyes. One of the other boys sniggered and jeered at him, and was immediately sent to the office to be punished. As Mr Dean said coldly to the whole class: “They’ve both been punished now and that’s the end of it. I’ll not tolerate any bullying over the misfortune of someone who has stood up and taken his punishment. The punishment ends the incident and wipes the slate clean. Let that be a lesson to you all.” It was.

I was sent to the office once for my untidy handwriting, but it was never held against me after my sharp reprimand from the headmaster (girls weren’t caned). No one jeered when I returned to the classroom and no one labelled me. I never felt branded by my untidy writing and I did honestly try to improve it. It’s still untidy when I write down ideas faster than my hand can move the pen, but I figure that as long as I can read it, that’s good enough for me. But every now and then, I slow my writing down, indulging in those never-forgotten Italics, and I relish the experience and beauty of it because I can…

My high school years introduced me to more wonderful teachers in the mould of Ralph Dean. The most influential were Miss Harris (English), Mrs Patrick (English and Drama), Miss Dreyer (Art) and Miss McLean (Biology and Drama). Perhaps I’ll reminisce about them in future blog posts.

What school taught me about teachers is that the good ones are hard to find, but when you find them, recognise their strengths as they recognise yours.

Wherever my favourite teachers are now, I thank you one and all, for your patience, for encouraging me in art, drama and writing, for nurturing my talents and for teaching me to live my life in the way most suited to my individuality.

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