So, pre-order copies of Alfie Slider vs the Shape Shifter are going out now, and I’m asking people if they’d like them signed. One friend of my husband’s asked if I could write a message encouraging her daughter, known as Piggle, to keep writing. Piggle, she said, was losing her joy in writing because of the technical way that stories are taught in school these days.
Well, that just happens to be a bit of a bugbear of mine, and try as I might I couldn’t come up with a pithy comment to scribble in the front of a book to address it. So I wrote Piggle a letter, and I’m sharing it here in case it’s helpful to anyone else.
I heard a rumour that you sometimes get discouraged from writing your amazing stories and poems because of all the rules that they teach you in school. I can understand that. I am still learning about writing, so I can do it better: At the grand old age of 46 I have started working towards my Masters Degree in Creative Writing. I’m learning a lot, but when I sit down to write stories, I hear all the voices of my teachers, the authors of books about writing that I’ve read, and the other students on my course whispering to me and telling me that I’m doing it wrong.
But here’s the thing : There didn’t used to be any ‘wrong’ when it came to stories. Stories are wild things. Stories are thoughts, that swirl around in people’s brains and until very recently the only way that stories (and I mean poems too) were told was orally. When the light faded, people would sit near the fire and those who were good at weaving them would entertain everyone else with stories. Those stories would be a bit different every time, they were never really finished and certainly never perfect. They relied on the memory of the person telling them, and I expect that they changed a bit depending on who was listening. The storytellers told the story in the way that people would enjoy them the most.
You know how books are sometimes called novels? And that novel means ‘new and different from what has gone before’? That’s because when books started to be printed, that was something new. That was the first time that stories had to be finished. The only way something can be finished is if we know what ‘finished’ looks like for that thing. That’s when all these rules about how you should use punctuation and things came about; they weren’t designed to help with storytelling, they were designed to hold stories into a set pattern.
And just like I did above, sometimes it’s good to break those rules. There’s a writer called Cormac McCarthy who hardly uses any punctuation and would definitely fail his SATs. When asked why he didn’t punctuate, he said he didn’t want to, ‘blot the page up with weird little marks’. His most famous book, The Road, won a Pulitzer Prize – if you haven’t heard of that, it’s one of the biggest writing prizes in America. Sometimes, breaking the rules is exactly the right thing to do.
Like I said, stories are wild things. They live in our brains, feeding off our imaginations and they don’t like being put in cages. They’re also a part of us, and that’s why it can feel like we’re the ones being constrained when we have to use all those rules to hold the story on the page – especially if we’re writing to show our teachers that we have learned all the rules they wanted to teach us. Writing like that can make it feel like you’re doing it wrong, it can suck the fun out of it. Do you know why? Because the most important thing about writing stories is leaving enough wildness in them, so it can leap off the page and start whizzing around in someone else’s imagination.
Still, learning about writing is important; it’s the only way that we are going to get any better at it. Do you know what has taught me the most about writing? Writing. For all the courses I’ve done, the books I’ve read, the Literacy lessons I’ve helped with at my children’s school, the thing that has taught me the most is writing more stories. Each and every story that I write teaches me something different: What worked well? What didn’t? Which parts of the story were exciting? How did other people feel about them? So, even when I feel like I’m doing it all wrong, or that I can’t tell the story the way I really want to because of the rules, I keep writing.
I hope you will too, because there is only one Piggle. You are the only person who has seen everything you’ve seen, done everything you’ve done and felt everything you’ve felt. Your stories are unique, and wonderful and important. You are the only person that can set your stories free, so they can inspire other people.
You’re about to read Alfie Slider vs the Shape Shifter. It’s my first book and even though I’ve read it about a zillion times, and it’s been proof read by a professional, when I look at it now there are still some sentences that make me unhappy, things I would like to change. I don’t think most readers notice them though, they’re too busy enjoying the story.
Very soon, I’m going to have the second Alfie Slider book ready to send to agents and publishers but before I send it to them (who will judge it by the rules) I need to know if the people I wrote it for (smart kids, like you) will enjoy it. Would you read it for me? Not to tell me about my SPaG, but to tell me whether you like the story, how it made you feel, whether there was still enough wild imagination left in it to spark ideas in your brain too. And, if you like, you can send me something you’ve written and I will do the same for you.