Jane Hardy Attempts Writing for Children
Our reporter takes practical tips from author Sheena Wilkinson at an eye-opening workshop at the CS Lewis Festival
It's ironic that Clive Staples Lewis, one of our greatest children's authors, produced his most famous works set in the imagined (and very moral) world of Narnia while living the ordered life of an Oxford don, a childless bachelor until middle-age.
But, of course, what he understood – as anybody who has ever fossicked at the back of his or her mother's wardrobe through coats and dresses hoping to reach the snowy fantasy land peopled Mr Tumnus et al also knows – is that all you need to produce books for young people is an understanding of language and a great imagination.
The start of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, for example, is a wonderful piece of writing and in a way provides a metaphor for our imaginations, as Lucy steps beyond the contained space to a new, cold but beautiful place. 'This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!' Lucy proclaims, pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make way, venturing further still.
Lewis tells us that Lucy was frightened at the prospective of stepping into the unknown, but also inquisitive and excited at the prospect. And 'inquisitive' and 'excited' sum up the emotions of the people I join at a writing workshop during the second CS Lewis Festival in an upper room of the Holywood Arches Library in Belfast.
The brilliant four-day festival dedicated to Lewis' life and work explores many aspects of the man: his faith, his academic status, his creation of Narnia and, of course, his upbringing in east Belfast. And in a creative piece of programming, the festival includes a workshop on how to write for children – in other words, it is over to us, Lewis' readers, to create our own magical worlds.
Sheena Wilkinson, a distinguished Northern Irish writer of non-escapist books for teenagers and winner of the Children's Books Ireland award with her novel Taking Flight, leads a mixed group of wannabe authors through some intriguing exercises.
Initially, I am a touch sceptical as to whether the 12 or so people of all ages can create a character worth reading together, but as we progress through the exercises – rather like Lucy through the wardrobe – I soon change my mind.
Our tutor, whose previous life as an English teacher shows in her brisk, competent manner, asks us to suggest ideas for a fictional character. First of all, we must decide if it should be male or female? Strangely, after a show of hands, most of the women (but not yours truly) opt for a male. He has to be young for readers to identify with him, so he turns out to be nine-years-old.
Then we must think up descriptive adjectives to describe him. Hands go up – and it is straight back to who gets teacher's eye (and approval) first, I'm afraid. 'Shy' is subsequently written on the whiteboard, then 'clever', then 'shifty' and finally 'courageous'.
Wilkinson explains that having slightly contradictory adjectives, such as 'shy' and 'courageous', can work well in fleshing out a character as in real life – most of us containing many contradictions. Subsequently we venture off on plot tangents suggested by these characteristics.
At one point John, our now diabetic hero, is suspected of making up his illness to get time off school and sympathy from his peers, which is maybe a step too far... Lewis arguably may not have approved of this approach as, in a brief comment on the principles of good prose – sent in response to a fan letter from a young wouldbe writer – he once noted:
'In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible", describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me".'
It was a good point well made, and the rest of Lewis's guidelines for creative writing echo George Orwell's famous 1946 essay, 'Politics and the English Language', with its emphasis on favouring plain, direct language over complicated vocabulary.
But Lewis might have been interested in the results of this workshop. Near the end, we are each asked to create our own character, using pictures and objects as prompts. I receive a photo of a boy in his late teens whom I don't much like the look of – he comes across as a bit privileged, lazy, goofy. So goofy Gus he becomes and, armed with some useful questions from Wilkinson, I get to work.
Gus lives in the Home Counties with his parents, once stole £50 from his father to go on an underage drinking spree in a local pub, and treasures a little knitted toy (we are all given objects to weave into the story) given to him by him by his late grandmother. When this childish thing falls out of his bag at school in front of the girl he fancies, Gus feels so embarrassed that he abandoned all plans to ask her out...
And so on. Not Lewis standard, I admit, but a beginning, at least, and, under Wilkinson's tuition, stories begin to be made.
Some of the other wannabe writers produce very strong material, it must be said, including the tale of a little girl who lost her mother during the Second World War, and treasures one of her belongings. We hearabout heroism, loss, emotion and love, and the large functional room is suddenly peopled with more than just the grown-up students, which is a kind of magic in itself.