The Christmas Tree Approach

A seasonal metaphor for an approach to drafting your story.

I’ve just finished drafting chapter 31 of my current ‘work in progress’. Thirty one chapters! It’s certainly the biggest writing project I’ve ever taken on, and is proving to be quite a challenge. It represents a departure from the kind of storytelling I’ve stuck to in the past, and ultimately is part of a much larger story already mapped out. This is essentially proving to be quite a learning curve for me, and I’d like to share some thoughts on the drafting process, if you’ll indulge me.

In previous works I have adopted an approach to drafting that led to certain complications. I would sometimes strive to get it just the way I wanted it first time, looking to include as much ‘fanciful’ language as possible, which ultimately left entire paragraphs looking convoluted. For this current, very large work, I’m taking on a more bare-bones approach. Now, there is every likelihood that what I’m doing has a very distinct name that has escaped my notice. However, I’ve taken to calling it the ‘Christmas Tree Approach’ to drafting.

Now, for this metaphor to work, I’m afraid it has to be an imitation Christmas tree, not a real one. Sorry if you prefer the genuine article, but let’s keep in mind it’s a metaphorical tree. The reason it has to be an imitation tree is that such trees are usually able to be broken down into sections for storage, and in trees of average size, this means three sections. The larger base, the mid section, and the top.

Or, in writing terms: Beginning, Middle and End. Such is dramatic structure.

The most complex stories in the world can be broken down to these three key sections. When working on this new project, I mapped out the entire story in a very basic, hand written draft. Some of the details have evolved during the later writing process, but the fact remains that the overall structure remains in place. I know how my story begins, the central event in the middle, and how I wish it to end. The three key sections are in place, without which we would not have a story, or indeed a Christmas tree.

Now, with the various Christmas trees I’ve had over the years, once you’ve put it together, you need to go around taking hold of the imitation branches and begin manipulating them into position. Pulling this way and that way, bending up or down as necessary, pluming the tree until it begins to take a more pleasing shape. This, when writing, could be thought of as either the overall editing process, or the little bits of editing we sometimes do while writing.

I have striven to refrain from doing too much editing while still drafting the overall story, but it does happen. A key plot point, or indeed a hole, appears that needs your attention in order for the story to work. There is nothing wrong with this, but I have tried to limit the amount of times I go back over a chapter and start changing too much. Instead, I’ve been keeping notes about various plot points I may wish to address or indeed add once the overall draft is complete. This ultimately allows you to get a fuller picture of the story and where these edits fit in. This is why, ultimately, the pulling about of the branches can be thought of as the process of editing. Getting all the details in place to make sure the story takes shape the way you want it.

Once the basic dramatic structure of the story is in place, and you’ve edited it to make sure it all works, we come to the final stage of our metaphor. Decoration. Every home that celebrates Christmas will have their own way of decorating the tree, and I’m sure there is many an argument to be had over the correct way of doing it. However, for the purposes of this metaphor, you are the only one who gets a say over how you decorate your writing. You are in charge here.

Apart from a few moments of inspiration, in this current draft I have not been too worried if some of my dialogue or prose comes across a bit flat. What I have been focusing on, in the overall draft and the little bits of editing is the fundamental point of each chapter. What is it I want the character to say or do in this moment? What, on a basic level, is happening? This is ultimately part of making sure the story works in its entirety before you go about beautifying it. During the editing process, once you’ve filled in any plot holes you find, you can go back and look at what you’ve said and ask yourself one question: how can I say this better?

This is where you can allow yourself to have some fun and get truly creative. Play with how a character speaks and how they behave in order to craft that sense of individuality that is going to make your reader identify with them. Take that bit of dialogue and jazz it up a bit, so long as the underlying message remains. Find a better way of describing what is going on so that your reader is transported into the scenario without the event itself being lost in description.

Many writers struggle with the notion that their first draft has to be near-enough perfect. They will strive to make sure it all sounds wonderful from the get-go but risk sacrificing the story in the process. I know, I’ve done it myself. Like most of us, I’m learning as I go along. No approach to writing is going to work for everyone, but I’m certainly finding that this is currently working for me. I’ve experienced a sense of flow in my writing that I’ve not felt for a while, and it’s allowed me to persevere with a project larger than anything I’ve taken on before. I focus on the essence of the story first, then seek to beautify it later.

Essentially, one cannot decorate a Christmas tree without first putting it together and pulling all the branches here, there and everywhere. The fun comes in making it look pretty, but you have to do the boring bit first.

I hope this has at least made some sense to you all, and in some cases actually proved useful!

“That’s not a proper story …”

A blog on the importance of building confidence in young writers, not destroying it.

As I scrolled through Twitter this morning, a tweet caught my eye, which is what tweets are supposed to do. It was asking whether I could remember the first story I ever wrote. This got me thinking about something that I hadn’t thought of for many years, but now that I come to consider it, it explains a lot.

The fact is, I do remember the first story I ever wrote, and I remember the scathing criticism that came with it. My first ‘bad review’. Sadly, it came from my teacher, an issue that will form the bulk of this blog, but first, the incident itself.

I was in Year 1, so I must have been about six years old. Our teacher, whose name I have genuinely forgotten, asked us to write a short story. I decided to write a story about a pair of robots, one of whom was looking forward to Christmas, the other one didn’t like Christmas. I cannot remember the precise names I gave them, but they were something like RX-4B and TR-3P. When my teacher saw this, a look of pure disgust rippled across her face. “Those aren’t real names,” she said. I looked up at her and said “You’ve never seen Star Wars, have you?” Surprisingly, she and I never really got on very well.

Despite a strong sense of defiance radiating from my bad-ass six year old self, like everyone else I found that criticism can hurt. This isn’t me saying that children shouldn’t be criticised, but there are ways to go about it so that the criticism is constructive. I went on to train as a primary school teacher and despite deciding to go in a different direction job-wise later in life, I learned enough during teacher training to look back at my own schooling and recognise that I had some abysmal teachers at times.

Criticising a six year old’s names for robots just comes down to a lack of imagination in the teacher, which still isn’t an excuse for tearing down the work of others, let alone a child. I’ve never really let this hold me back when writing, but teachers in particular have a key role to play when it comes to developing children’s confidence, or destroying it.

My handwriting has never really been the neatest, even now. I can make it out, and if I’m writing something in a rush it can become illegible. While learning joined-up handwriting, I had a teacher who would literally gag if you presented her with a piece of work that wasn’t your neatest handwriting. I’m not kidding. I can clearly recall one incident, bringing my work up to show to this particular teacher, she took one look, blanched and said “Take it away.”

I would make mistakes quite frequently when writing, which meant ink blots and badly formed letters having to be crossed out. The fact that this teacher insisted on us striving to write neatly was not the problem, it was her visceral and over-the-top reaction to our mistakes. It got to the point where I was terrified to show her my work, because once you made one mistake, that was it. It was ruined. I would descend into tears in the classroom. To this day, when someone remarks about my handwriting, my insides tighten. I worked hard at improving my handwriting, but I struggle to recall receiving any genuine help from a teacher on this particular issue. I also, in all fairness, don’t recall any of my teachers in secondary school remarking one way or another on my handwriting, but this one teacher was all it took for me to develop a ‘thing’ about the neatness of my handwriting.

Again, I am not advocating only ever telling children what they want to hear. If a child’s handwriting needs improving, it’s the teacher’s duty to help them to do so. Refusing to even read their work because of their handwriting says one thing to me, namely “What you have to say doesn’t matter because I don’t like the way you’ve written it”. Reading the child’s work and discussing the content should come first, saying what you like about it and what could use improvement. If it’s the handwriting that needs improving, you explain why it’s necessary to be precise in how we write, namely so our words can be understood. You remind the child that this is still a relatively new skill they’re learning and that mistakes are going to happen. You allow the child time and give them the necessary support. Looking at their work and literally making a gagging noise is hardly good teaching practice, yet it’s how one of my teachers chose to conduct herself.

My own teacher training was an eye opener in so many ways, but even before I started my course, I learned about the rule of 2 to 1. Both my parents were secondary school teachers and they explained that this ratio was how to go about discussing a child’s work with them. For everything that needs some improvement, you sandwich it between two things you liked about their work. Constructive and confidence building. This is a principle I’ve always striven to employ when working with young people.

One thing I will say for the teacher who used to become quite ill at the sight of my handwriting, at least she did it in private. In my first year of teacher training, I was on a placement in a Year 6 class. Obviously, being a student teacher in my first year, I was mostly there to observe and support wherever I could. Not there to rock the boat.

The class I was assigned to had a supply teacher in one day. I’ve nothing against supply teachers, I’ve done it myself often enough, but there was something about this guy. The class was asked to write a story in fifty words. A great exercise in concise storytelling. One child wrote what I felt was a humorous, imaginative story in precisely fifty words. Exactly what had been asked of him, and he had the courage to read it out loud in front of the class. The supply teacher declared “That’s not a proper story, listen to what I’ve done.” He then went on to read out what he’d written about a man crossing a desert. Descriptive, yes, and under fifty words …but there was no story to it. It felt more like an extract than anything else. The class had been asked to write a story in fifty words, namely beginning, middle and end. This child had done so, but the supply teacher didn’t like it so he read out his own work to compare it.

To this day, I remember feeling utter indignation on this child’s behalf. He’d done precisely what had been asked of the class, written a funny and engaging fifty word story, and this teacher had the audacity to humiliate him in front of the whole class. Still, being a student, I was very good and said nothing to contradict the teacher openly. I did, however, make a point of speaking to the child later and telling him I enjoyed his story and that he was very brave for reading it out. I can only hope I undid some of the damage that could have been done.

Adults can have a devastating impact on children’s confidence if they’re not careful. Taking issue with my handwriting is one thing, but had I taken on board what my Year 1 teacher said about the names of my robots not being “proper”, I might have eventually decided that it was never going to be worth my time attempting anything creative. All writing is subjective, of course, but we should never dismiss a child’s efforts as “not being a proper story”. If you don’t quite follow a child’s reasoning behind writing something, ask them. Get them to talk you through the choices they made in their story. Teaching isn’t about giving answers all the time. It’s about asking the right questions that get children to realise their own potential for themselves.

It’s well known that a bad teacher can destroy a child’s interest in a subject. There are fantastic teachers out there who have inspired generations of children in so many ways. Confidence can take a lifetime to build, but in some cases it only takes a few knocks to leave a big dent.