10 September 2018

New term new stories: ‘We have to find the way to tell our stories that suits us’

Catherine Johnson, author
by Catherine Johnson Writing Tips

Catherine Johnson is the author of several YA and children’s novels including Sawbones, which won the Young Quills Prize for best Historical Fiction in the 12+ category, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, which was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize 2016 and her new novel Freedom, a middle grade novel about slavery in Britain. Catherine is also the tutor of our extremely popular Writing YA and Children’s Fiction online course.

Here Catherine shares the ups and downs of juggling writing with other commitments. And that no matter how old you get September always feels like an opportunity for a fresh start…

Hello! Even though it is, (oooh, too many to count!) years since I or my children were in education, September still seems like the start of the year, rather than the run up to the end of it.

It’s often the time I start something new or at least, after a summer of odds and sods, think about the projects I have lined up and how I’m going to schedule my time.

And time is something there is never enough of. Whether we wake up ridiculously early (hello!) or stay up late, how we carve out writing time is something that all of us writers have to come to terms with.

These days I’m lucky enough to write full time one way or another but I still juggle teaching and writing. And in the past I’ve had children and part-time or full-time work so I’m well aware how tricky things can be.

I do have some days, rare, wonderful, good days, when I can clear up to three to five thousand words, some of them half decent,  and imagine that if only I could do this every single day I could maybe write at least 10 books a year(!).

But, of course these are balanced by the very few words days and the days spent on other projects, on meetings and admin and everything else.

And then, if it’s not time, it’s the annoying intrusion of events and emotions, of concerns and anxieties and happenings that serve to pitch us out of our carefully imagined worlds and into – the horror – real life.

So how do we get it done? How do we manage to make the time and space not just in our lives, but inside our heads? I wish I had hard and fast answers. I believe that for each of us it’s different. We have to find the way to tell our stories that suits us; whether it’s early risers or late nighters. Trains or coffee bars, libraries or writing sheds.

The most important thing is not to beat yourself up if you let your word count slip or if things don’t work out the way you imagined them to. When life gets in the way we have to learn to go round it or over it or – sometimes – through it. Sometimes stories take turns we don’t imagine when we start, and that can be part of the fun. If annoyingly time consuming…

This year has been – still is – the weirdest of my fifty six years. It’s seen massive upheavals of all sorts but I am pleased to say (and I’m nothing if not a little smug about this) that even though I missed two deadlines and had to stick one much loved project on the back burner, I did finish two small books, both of which are out round about now.

FREEDOM came out last month from Scholastic. It’s a short novel for 9-12s,  an adventure about an enslaved boy living in Jamaica, Nat Thomas, who travel to London in the year 1783. It’s a romp set against the backdrop of a turbulent time and the beginning of the end of the slave trade. Although the story is complete fiction, it was commissioned specifically to tie in to big events in British history. There’s an evil parrot called Mr Bird, and an exciting escape involving a cart full of night soil (if you don’t know what that is look it up!). It was fun to write and I’m happy to say it’s had a lovely reception from readers.

RACE FOR THE FROZEN NORTH is out mid September for the same age group. It’s published by Barrington Stoke, a small publisher who are brilliant at what they do, which is produce books for dyslexic and reluctant readers.  The book is a dramatic retelling of the life of African American explorer Mathew Henson. Given that I had already written one of my only two non fiction books about him it sounded like a relatively straightforward task. However there’s something very tricky and odd about writing fiction about someone who actually lived. Even if my protagonist died half a century ago I felt massive responsibility to do justice to the man, all the while, writing an exciting and engaging novel.

As it’s not out yet I’ve only had one review, but it was a good one, so my fingers are crossed that this short novel – with lovely illustrations by Katie Hickey – will find its readers.

And this September I’ve a bundle of projects to be getting on with. Stories set in periods of time I don’t know enough about – which means trying not to get hooked by the research – as well as film and teaching commitments.

I’ve decided this autumn I’m going to try and make space for my passion project, for the novel I put aside over a year ago when life got too hectic. Because the only person who loses out if I don’t write it is me.

So good luck to me and to all of us out there trying to get those stories down, even when the world conspires against us. Let’s get click clacking! Or if you prefer longhand, let’s get those pens out and start writing!

Are you also writing for children or young adults? If you want to join Catherine for the next stage of your writing journey, take a look at our Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course. Applications close Midnight 23rd September.

There’s also a scholarship opportunity available for a talented BAME writer: The Sarah Quinn BAME Writing Scholarship for YA and Children’s Fiction.

For those of you interested in telling stories for younger children take a look at our new online children’s picture book courses, all starting in October:

Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book 

Writing a Children’s Picture Book

Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book

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