When Wirral-based author and former teacher Jon Mayhew came to Northwich to host a Writing for Children and Young Adults workshop, he brought with him a collection of his notebooks, original manuscripts, ‘visual-maps’ of plots for stories, and a number of rejection letters from publishers. But he also brought THE letter. The golden one. It was written in 2009, from Bloomsbury publishing house, and it was a letter of acceptance for his Victorian Gothic novel, Mortlock. The letter also included a ‘let’s do lunch’ offer, to discuss matters. Ach, imagine that. A book deal. Lunch with an editor. The stuff of dreams.
Scroll on almost two decades later and Jon is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning author, with many more books under his belt. His children’s novels are still published the traditional way, by Bloomsbury, but he has also dipped his toe into the self-publishing waters with his books for adults, which he writes under a nom de plume. The best of both worlds, if you will.
I’ve attended a few workshops and talks by authors in my time, and I’m always in awe of how they actually find time to write. Jon is no exception. He regularly attends schools and libraries and such, to hold workshops. And he’s a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Chester, offering his expertise to students and staff.
But on this particular afternoon in Winnington, Jon was offering his expertise to a group of 12 Northwich (and beyond) writers – all eager to learn more about the writing process, the tricks for creating a good children’s book, tips for unearthing ideas, how to read the market etc.
To get their ideas and creative juices flowing, Jon asked the participants of the workshop to remember what it was like being a child. To remember a time when they were embarrassed, left with a sense of injustice, laughed at something, or what memory evoked a strong emotional response. This helps to put the writer’s mind into the mind of their young protagonist. Jon set the group an exercise: to write a childhood memory in 200 words.
He then talked about how to create great characters, the importance of conflict, aspiration and wish-fulfilment in a story, the structure of it, and how to tap into that big well of ideas that exists out there.
Cull hidden histories, old traditions and sayings, myths, proverbs, and superstitions to use as a basis for a plot. Never be afraid to venture into the dark side, but always be mindful of the age of the readers. And don’t preach to them. If you have something to say, don’t say it, SHOW it. Allude to things, rather than explain.
In the six-hour session, Jon offered the group a wealth of information and tips and tricks of the trade (too much to mention here), all delivered in an authentic, energetic and engaging way.
It certainly gave the Northwich writers a lot of food for thought. And maybe sent them away dreaming of the day they receive their own golden letter.