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Tales from the Road: Dunfirmline, Day 1

I’m currently in Dunfermline, running a book sprint with a group of ten students from Queen Anne High School. The students are a mix of Year 7 and Year 8, and so far they are a varied crew. The school building is big, modern (built in 2003) and well-appointed, it’s one of the results of the large population growth that places like Dunfermline have had over the last few years.

It’s relatively rare these days that I run camps on my own – mostly I train student volunteers to run them or I run camps with the assistance of volunteers, which means that I get to do a certain amount more relaxed sitting down.

On this occasion, I’m on my own and I am exhausted. Partly it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve taught for a full day (I left academia in September). The amount of energy it takes to focus ten young minds for a full day shouldn’t be underestimated – when you get used to it, it’s okay, but I should definitely remember to tell my next lot of young volunteers that it’s not worth making plans for the evening.

The Monday evening anyway – one of the slightly odd things about the TooManyCooks process (the one behind the White Water Writers brand) is that the writers have a fairly relaxed day on Monday because they are brainstorming and planning and working though ideas. They then find the going more and more strenuous as the week goes on. This is ideal of course, as the writers get more invested the bar rises and they rise with it. It’s part of the reason that the kids find themselves hitting peak performance so consistently – by Friday they are acting as a smooth, trusted, well-oiled machine without much intervention.

However, for the volunteers who run the camps, the reverse is true, the first day is an extremely demanding one (intellectually, physically, and psychologically) – and the process gets easier remarkably quickly until Friday when you are largely just letting the writers sprint for the finish and dealing with the odd panic. One of the things that is always hardest for the volunteers is the names: at 9am they are introduced to ten writers and they learn their names. By 10am each writer has been assigned a role, so you have to remember that the writer called “Dora” also has control of the character called “little sister”. By 11am each writer has fleshed out the biography for the characters that they are responsible for, so now you have to remember that “Dora” is the “little sister” whose name is “Lara”, also “Lara”, the character, has a big sister called, confusingly enough “Dora” whose writer is called “Steve”. This is tricky for the most hardened of teachers and it represents a bit of a baptism of fire for our volunteers. One of my favourite things about the process is that by about halfway thought the writers start referring to each other by their character names rather than the real ones – regardless of how mismatched they are by gender, age, or culture.


I’m clearly shattered in this photo… :)


So Monday night is definitely an early night. But I should report on what the kids at Queen Anne achieved today. The started with this brief. They brainstormed and worked out both the narrative arcs and set pieces that they wanted to do. They identified the principle actors and influences and each child took responsibility for a particular character or responsibility. They planned out scenes in detail and worked as a group to storyboard the novel as a whole. At the end of the day this is the result:




Each of those A5 papers are a single scene in the storyboard – giving us about 55 scenes, carefully ordered, each one showing, in a sentence what this scene needs to do to advance the plot, and which characters are involved in a scene. You can pick out any single character, big or small, and follow them though the plot, and see the adversity they deal with and how they develop as a person. Some of these scenes will be cut of course, narratives develop in unplanned ways. But this is the blueprint, the plan that the writers have set themselves. While they haven’t written a single word yet, they are well on their way to a fine novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.

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