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Read a lot to make you a better writer

Advice was flowing from writers and illustrators for schoolchildren at the Edinburgh book festival, Karen Shead reports

Read as much as possible and write something every day, even if it is just one new word. That was the advice being given at last week's school events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

The children were clearly taking any advice to heart. Their backs straightened and heads leaned slightly towards the writers holding workshops.

"You don't say 'I want to be a painter' and never paint," explained Catherine Forde, author of Fat Boy Swim. "You have to practise. And the same goes for writing.

"If you are going to be a writer, it will come out one day. It's like having a wee monster over your shoulder. It's like an addiction."

In the honest and frank session where she and Kevin Brooks, her co-author on I See You, Baby, chatted to an audience of S2-S4 pupils like old friends, they said writing was their ideal job.

"You get up and spend all day feeding your addiction," explained Kevin. For Cathy, the best thing was: "You can be really scruffy. I write in my pyjamas."

In an earlier session for an audience of P7-S2s, Catherine MacPhail's advice was: "Read as much as you can. By reading, without realising it, you are helping yourself to be a better writer."

Advice was not only given to wannabe authors but to budding illustrators too. Simon James, a popular name with young children judging by the excited chatter and giggles in the audience, shared his secret about drawing, which is "to observe, to look, to study and to see".

The author and illustrator of Baby Brains told the P1-P3 children how he started drawing when he was about 5 years old and he hasn't stopped since.

One day when he was a wee boy he saw a worm in a puddle, he said. He picked it up and licked it (he later confessed this wasn't true but only after enjoying the groans of disgust from his audience). This little wiggly worm inspired him to create an elaborate underground labyrinth called Worms International Rescue, where worms could even learn to swim in their very own swimming pool. He also created a very intelligent worm, who wore glasses of course, called Professor Wiggly. The children laughed in appreciation.

Other trade secrets were divulged by Vivian French and Nicola Morgan.

Vivian French's workshop for P1-P4 pupils was about words and pictures, and she was accompanied by an illustrator from the Edinburgh College of Art.

Pupils from Woodmuir Primary in Breich, West Lothian, learned how to write a story plan and think about using descriptive vocabulary. By the end of the session they had come up with their very own story about a giraffe called George.

The title they settled on, with a little help from Ms French, was George's Birthday Surprise, and the plan for after the session was to go back to school and write up and illustrate their story in their own notebook, which they could keep in the school library.

Nicola Morgan's session, for S1-S6 pupils, was a "writer's workshop for talented young writers", as she explained to the pupils from Glasgow's Notre Dame High. Her key advice was to try to see things through other people's eyes.

She asked the girls to imagine they were somebody or something in a crowded situation. Pens and pencils scrawled across blank sheets of paper and after 10 minutes imaginative descriptions were given from the point of view of a bench, a rubbish bin and a homeless person.

Ms Morgan also gave the girls warm-up exercises, which involved writing down in one minute as many words as they could think of that began with the same letter of the alphabet, and to describe an imaginary box. She gave them several tips to improve their writing and the girls went away inspired.

"She gave us lots of ideas and made us realise that when you are writing you have to think about the reader too," said Amy (S4).

"I thought the workshop would be just her talking about her books but it wasn't and that was really good. The exercises were good, especially the warm-ups."

School librarian Francesca Brennan said: "Nicola had some really imaginative ideas and she put their imaginations to the test.

"They learned some new skills they'll now be able to put to use in the classroom."

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