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Back To (Writing) School: polish your conkers & sharpen your pencils

 

I love, love, love the beginning of the school year. Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher, or maybe it’s because I feel like I’ve never left school, or maybe it’s because autumn is my favourite season.

 

 

Whatever the reason, for me, the new year starts in September, not January.

 

For the past week, I’ve been undertaking something teachers call CPD (Continuing Professional Development) – training in everything from how to work a fire extinguisher and an epipen to how to use coaching and restorative justice to get the very best out of our pupils. Between sessions I’ve been filling in my class registers, planning lessons and stocking up on all that gorgeous stationary which I use to accessorise my life as a teacher and a writer.

It has also been a time to question my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher and to work on those so that I can give the kids in my classes the education they deserve.

All this has got me thinking about how, as writers, we sometimes lack that beginning of term motivation to polish our conkers and sharpen our pencils. One day flows into the next, an uninterrupted sequence of writing, editing, redrafting, planning, researching, reading. It’s easy to get stuck into our writing ruts. So here are some ideas for refreshing our writing lives – for going back to school.

 

Make it fun

There’s an excitement that accompanies the beginning of school. Remember buying new school shoes? Choosing a favourite pencil case? Getting that beginning of term haircut to show off on your first day back? Laying out your new uniform on your bed? Think about some things you can do to make this new season in your writer’s feel special. Mark the moment: buy a notebook and some favourite pens. Get a new ‘writer’s’ haircut! Take your characters out for a special meal and tell them that it’s time to go back to school.

 

Make resolutions & set goals

If the new school year is like a year, it’s a great time to make resolutions. As a child, I remember going into each new term promising myself that this time I wouldn’t fall out with my best friend over something silly or get behind on homework or give up on maths just because it felt like my brain wasn’t designed for algebra. I’d work harder, be a better person, nurture my friendships and my relationships with my teachers.

 

I chanted those magic words, ‘I’ll do my best.’

 

Now I do the same for writing. Every September, I renew my pledge to write every day. Even if that’s just a sentence or Just Five Minutes. I promise myself to get to know my characters better, to hang out with them more on the page and in my head, to keep pushing myself in those areas of writing I find hard.

Try to set some goals too. Make them specific. Pin up a beautiful wall calendar and make writing appointments, set yourself deadlines, book in writing courses. I’m working on my third novel at the moment and I’ve promised myself  that I’ll have the first draft complete by half-term.

 

Think about the resolutions you’d like to make for your writing life as you begin this new academic year.

 

Tidy up

September is the time to clear out your schoolbag, your wardrobe, your desk, to re-organise the books on your shelf, to write out a time-table. There’s a wonderful poem by the American Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, about how cleaning things up before you get down to writing can be hugely motivating:

 

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Billy Collins, Advice To Writers, Sailing Alone Around The Room

 

For us as writers, that might mean taking a feather duster to our notebooks, our desktops, our writing plans. It might mean doing something like sorting out that messy plot by putting post-its all over our study wall or writing a massive mind map to get a sense of where we are going or doing a character study on one of those characters we feel we need to get to know better. Or it might just mean scrubbing the floor, that can help too!

 

Work on a weakness

Maths was always a sticking point for me. Chemistry too. I knew I’d have to work harder on those than the English lessons I loved. But I understood that Maths and Chemistry were as much part of the world – and my brain – as reading and writing; that by learning to be more logical, to solve problems, to make sense of puzzles, I’d be a better writer too. So I worked at it. I was never brilliant, but I did okay in the end.

I recently listened to an interview with Aaron Sorkin, one of the best screen play writers and playwrights of our generation, (The West Wing, News Room, A Few Good Men), say that he could write dialogue for hours but that he struggled with plot. I’ve always thought that his plotting was pretty awesome but it was reassuring to hear that he’s had to work at this. Characters come naturally to me. They’re what form the backbone of my stories. Like Sorkin, I’ve had to work a little harder at plot. And maybe because I’m an English teacher, I beat myself up a great deal about language. The thought of writing cliches keeps me up at night.

There are a million and one ways to get better at writing. Pledge to read a great book on writing this term (see the Writing Books I Love for inspiration). Attend a workshop. Guardian Masterclasses are great for that. Attend a residential writing course. Anything run by The Arvon Foundation is pretty awesome as are the retreats run by Patricia Lee-Lewis, one of the best writing teachers I know.

 

Push yourself in an area you feel less comfortable with. Indulge less in writing the things that come naturally and do some writing push ups in an area you find difficult.

 

Another great way to work on your weaknesses is to join a writing group (on or off line) or to workshop your writing with a writing buddy and ask them to give you some critical feedback.

And finally, read, read, read. I’ve featured a number of interviews with incredible writers and when I ask them to give me three tips for aspiring writers, nine times out of ten, they say you should read.

 

Reading fiction is the best masterclass you’ll ever take. Especially if you read like a writer.

 

Whatever approach you take, promise yourself to work on your weaknesses – and to make those things you’re brilliant at sparkle even more. You owe it to your readers.

Enjoy going back to (writing) school. Use this September as an opportunity to become a better writer.

 

Read. Write. Love. x

 

Photograph by Sasha Mann