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From the Mslexia Workshops Collection
New Writing Exercises for the Mslexia Children's Novel Competition
Devised by Ann Coburn
‘Children’s literature has wild blood in it.’
John Rowe Townsend, children’s author.
We’re hard-wired for story; it’s there in our DNA, a genome pair, creating both the need to tell and the desire to listen. For centuries, myths, legends, fairy tales and fables have evolved alongside/inside us, and contemporary literature for children and young adults draws deep on that ‘wild blood’ inheritance. Over three workshops, we’ll be exploring the liminal, transformational, magical elements of literature for children and young adults.
WORKSHOP ONE: SETTING AND TRANSFORMATION
‘Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way that pleases him?’ Sigmund Freud.
A real setting can be both the starting point and the inspiration for your writing. A setting you know well will provide you with a ready-made geography; it will also bring a certain emotional depth to your writing, coloured by your own feelings and memories.
Choose a setting which was important to you when you were the same age as your intended readership. Describe it using sensory detail; utilise all five senses. Try starting with a wide-screen panoramic long shot, and then zoom in for close-ups on specific features. Allow your feelings about your chosen setting to influence the descriptive tone – and try creating that tone through selective concrete detail. Think about the four elements - earth, air, fire and water - and how they might be used to further evoke the ‘character’ of your setting.
You could stop right here and use your lovingly-created setting to great effect, as do Philippa Pearce, in Tom’s Midnight Garden, and LM Montgomery, in Anne of Green Gables. To kick-start plot, you might like to try introducing something or someone which doesn’t belong in your setting (such as Tom himself, in Tom’s Midnight Garden).
OR you might like to take this further and get into some transformational geography.
Try any one of the following options, all of which transform your setting in a way which best serves your story while still keeping it as the place you remember from your childhood.
MYTH, FOLKLORE AND FAIRYTALE
In Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson’s lonely young characters transform their local woods into a fantasy world, creating a liminal space accessed only by those with enough belief. David Almond’s characters often do the same, sometimes through a darker lens, for example in Kit’s Wilderness. Try transforming your setting into another, wilder landscape by filtering it through the imagination of your characters. In this way, you can create a different world hidden beneath the most mundane contemporary settings. Alternatively, you could use real myths or folktales to transform your setting. In Tender Morsels, for example, Margo Lanagan pushes her characters through into a parallel/alternative landscape built around the fairy tale, ‘Snow White, Rose Red’.
Use your original setting, but take it back or forward in time. This can be particularly useful if you have a strong theme to explore; your setting can then also become symbolic or iconic.
For example, in Bog Child, Siobhan Dowd explores the theme of individual sacrifice in times of conflict by using the same Irish Border setting for two historical stories – one in the 1980’s and one in AD80. A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly is partly based on a true historical story.
Alternatively, Suzanne Collins, takes her American setting far into a dystopian future in The Hunger Games trilogy.
Keep your original setting but transform it into a setting on another world, replacing details, such as flora and fauna, with different details, as Patrick Ness does in the opening pages of The Knife of Never Letting Go.
ANN COBURN is a playwright and children’s novelist from Northumberland. She also has a secret life as a ghost-writer. Ann mentors emerging playwrights and novelists, and tutors on the M.A. Creative Writing at Newcastle University. www.anncoburn.com
These workshops have been devised especially for the Mslexia Children's Novel Competition, judged by Malorie Blackman, Julia Churchill and Julia Eccleshare. First prize is £5,000. For the latest on the writing world, publishing and creativity subscribe to Mslexia now.
Plunder our selection of writing workshops for inspiration:
The Mslexia MA in Novel Writing – Character, led by Jenny Newman
...with life coach Bekki Hill
Explore the unconscious and turn your life into literature
Hayfields or horse-dung