NORTH East author and creative writing teacher Celia Bryce has been inspiring writers of the future after calling in to Morpeth Waterstones to speak to the teen bookgroup about her first novel, Anthem for Jackson Dawes, and her work for stage and radio.
The following comes from a question-and-answer session with the teenagers.
What first inspired you to pick up a pen?
My teacher, Mrs O’Hagan, from top-year primary school. She asked us to write a poem about autumn. Somehow, and I don’t know how, she really liked what I’d written. There was a lot of stuff about crispiness and crunchiness and leaves drifting down like feathers or rushing like litter along the street when the wind blew. Mrs O’Hagan took my poem to show it to her husband who taught in the senior school. That made a very shy girl feel a certain amount of pride. Mrs O’Hagan told me never to give up writing. I never did. But I wish I’d kept that poem.
What would you say are the most important skills involved in writing a story?
Being able to put yourself into another person’s mind, to imagine how they feel, to make your characters live and breathe and seem real even when they aren’t. Once you’ve done that, being able to put them into a situation which will challenge them, change them for good or for bad, and come out at the end having learned something. Being able to look at a first draft of your story and identify all of those areas where the writing could be improved, either by taking some words out or putting more words in. Being able to accept that the writing isn’t perfect, but also that it’s not a pile of rubbish either. That takes skill. Sometimes we can be very hard on ourselves when we write.
What are the different challenges of writing a novel compared to a short story?
In a short story, there is far less time and there are far fewer words in which to tell the tale. This means that almost immediately – and sometimes absolutely immediately, depending on how short the story is – there needs to be an indication of what problem the main character is facing and the story needs to end with some kind of resolution of that problem.
That is, it needs to be sorted out or the main character needs to change their perception and accept things and move on. In a short story you need to identify the main character(s) and stick with them and their story.
There isn’t too much opportunity to introduce other characters, especially if they have very little to do with the story. Making every character count is important.
When writing a novel, there is time and space to weave in other storylines. This is challenging because they all have to come to some sort of resolution at the end. So too many can be a problem and too few can also be difficult. Writing a novel, I think is rather like spinning plates or juggling. There needs to be the main storyline, which shouldn’t be pushed out of sight and out of mind by all the other less important, though equally interesting, stories going on at the same time. It’s a question of getting the balance right.
Writing a novel takes a different kind of commitment too. Those many thousands of words at your disposal can seem like a huge impassable mountain. Climbing that mountain needs time and patience and some kind of plan, even if it’s just to say I’m going to write a certain number of words a day, though having some vague plan of what’s going to happen in the novel is pretty useful too.
How did you come up with Jackson Dawes?
Jackson just appeared in my head as I was writing Megan’s story. I can’t understand why. He’s not based on anyone I know. He appeared just the way he looks and behaves in the book with that old hat forever on his head.
Megan needed to be worked on to make her the way she was and in fact to change some elements of her character to make her less of a nice person at the beginning of the story. Jackson’s laid back and full of fun and inquisitive and underneath all of that, he has a love of life which almost glows.
He was a perfect vehicle for showing that Megan was nothing like him. In ordinary circumstances, they would never have met. But being thrown together on a children’s ward isn’t very ordinary. They did meet and their story began. The name Jackson Dawes only happened when I was writing the scene where the two young people met.