Helping Japanese kids learn how to write isn’t exactly what I thought I would find myself doing once I returned to the UK, but hey, it’s what I’ve got.
Living in Japan was great, but it had to come to an end eventually. Some people do end up staying for the rest of their lives, and hell, there are times I wonder if coming back was a good idea in the first place. London’s just… London. It’s a harsh, dog-eat-dog sort of place at the best of times, and without the safety net of a nice, cosy Japanese school to take my shoes off in, it can be downright uncaring.
However, something must have kept me yearning for the UK for all this time, right? I cut all my ties with Japan.
Well, almost all. See, I grade essays for kids aiming for elite schools. It’s a cool side gig. These kids are bilingual little brain rockets who I have no doubt will end up becoming future leaders.
Sometimes the essays are straightforward, thesis statement-topic sentence x 3-conclusion deals. They write about times they’ve experienced hardship, times they had to make tough decisions, that kind of thing. And sometimes, just sometimes, they write fiction.
Getting out of the ‘Arrgh! Robots are attacking the school and my new Xbox exploded and killed all the aliens I forgot to mention earlier!’ levels can be hard. My advice to the struggling kids is to read. A lot.
And some kids do read – I remember teaching a boy who’d already worked his way through the Sherlock Holmes series, a shedload of Tolkien, Crime and Punishment, and a smattering of Shakespeare for good measure. I remember blushing and stammering out an excuse when he asked what I thought of Tolstoy.
You can tell the kids who don’t read. Their stories feature messy dialogue, (‘Argh! A bee has just buzzed in my ear and made me go deaf, oh no!’) lots of grammar mistakes, and words like ‘good’ and ‘crazy’ reign supreme.
So – Write a lot and read a lot. Stephen King said that.
In Stephen King’s On Writing, he stresses these points frequently. It’s one of my favourite books. If there were fewer instances of shit and cunt, I’d make it one of my students’ favourite books as well.
It’s a dream to read. I remember when a lecturer called on an excerpt during a screenwriting class at university – by the end of that day, I’d bought and read the whole thing cover to cover. It’s less of a textbook and more of a set of guidelines – think more along the lines of the Eightfold Path than the Bible (apologies to the saved). It’s more like a memoir than a rule book. You don’t so much learn from it as simply enjoy it.
I should probably confess that apart from On Writing, the only other stuff by Stephen King I’ve enjoyed is the Different Seasons novella collection (some of the best work I’ve ever read). Horror and suspense just aren’t my bag, I think.
A memorable part of the book is when Mr King actually sets a writing task for you. What is this, school? But you know what? It works pretty well. Apparently, writes King, stories are fossils in the earth, just waiting to be found. Our job as writers is to find the fossil and ease it out of the soil. Some people use a jackhammer to get the thing out of the ground, and force a plot out of their novel, destroying the whole thing in the process. All we need to do, he says, is think about the situation. Plot schmot! Just worry about how the characters react to a situation, and the rest will follow.
Here’s the situation in a nutshell: Jane’s abusive husband, Dick, is a controlling, jealous bastard, and he’s been incarcerated for his violent ways with her. She’s safe at last – she’s dropped her daughter off at a party, and she’s about to go home and relax with a cup of herbal tea. But when she gets there, she’s overcome with a strange feeling – something’s wrong. Something is different. She brushes the thought aside, gets the hot water going, and puts on the news.
What’s this? Three men have escaped from the local jail! Two have been caught, but one’s still at large. Jane knows for sure which one. After all, she now knows why she felt so uneasy at the door – she could smell Dick’s hair tonic.
A great situation. King tells us to write what comes next. Only – and this is a big only – we have to switch the genders of the characters. Boom!
Based on what we know, we can simply write the way the characters react to the situation. It’s a kind of written improv, I reckon. It’s a fantastic exercise, and it can make writers out of all of us.
Here’s what I came up with.
Dick’s eyes stayed on the TV. He gritted his teeth a little, felt the little muscles in his cheeks jump. The smell of the Miracle Moist shampoo, a brand he hadn’t bought since… since a while, seemed to fill every corner of the room.
The footfalls were getting louder. He fancied he could hear a slight irregularity to the pace of them, as if the wearer hadn’t donned this particular kind of shoe for a long time. He could feel his tea was cold in its porcelain cup. He gripped it harder.
A rustle outside the living room door. He didn’t move his eyes. A couple were having a good natured fight on Neighbours, a show where the highest level of family conflict seemed limited to forgotten birthday parties.
If he didn’t look up, he wouldn’t have to acknowledge the door slowly opening. He wouldn’t have to see her or speak to her. He would ignore her and watch his programme, as he had done so many times before while she screamed and accused him.
He could feel her behind him. Dick watched Neighbours.
“Dick.” A hand on his shoulder.
It faintly came to him that he was being rather rude. He turned then. He saw the white chiffon before he saw her, and smelled an overwhelming mix of Custard Apple Miracle Moist and mothballs. She was wearing her wedding dress.
“Hello, sweetie,” he said.
And so on. You could probably do this for as long as you can stand it. It’s a great writer’s block tool. I don’t think it means you’ll produce the next bestseller, but it certainly demonstrates that you can write something. At the very least, imagining how characters really react might save me from reading more dialogue about crazy robots taking over the island in a Lord of the Flies reimagining.
Write a lot, read a lot. I like it.