A writing class with Jack Heath

I was fortunate enough to attend a brief writing class with Jack Heath last night.

According to his website, Jack Heath is the author of sixteen action-packed novels for young children. From my own experience I can add that he is also a clear and engaging presenter who is well-versed in his craft.

It was a whirlwind class covering as many key writing topics as he could fit in the short timeframe, and I won’t try to rehash them all here. Suffice to say Jack has a masterful grasp of what a reader wants, and every lesson kept coming back to this: make sure your reader is getting rewarded for the effort they are putting in. They want likable characters, conflict, and emotional engagement. They get easily bored and unfocused when reading, just like you can. For him, writing for young people, every single sentence has to be more interesting than Angry Birds, or out comes the phone instead. And more than all this, readers want the promise that what is coming next will be even more worthwhile and stimulating than what they are currently reading.

Every sentence, every word, in a book carries this burden.

But perhaps his most valuable lesson was this: on those days we don’t feel like writing, when you are bleeding onto the page and still feel like we have come away with nothing, those are the most valuable days. Those are the days we are improving. We learn through struggle. If every day was effortless we would never get better.

One way of finding this learning zone is through writing exercises, and in this class we completed two. Try this one for yourself: write down the names of three famous novels or movies you are familiar with. Now, write a completely new scene that has the character from one of the books, the setting from the second, and the plot from the third. The outcome will undoubtedly be fun (and most commonly satirical too), but it is also surprisingly difficult. This exercise forces you to explore new writing space and challenges your natural genre groove.

For my scene, a British spy chained in the bowels of a great wooden ship was being interrogated as to the whereabouts of a particular boy wizard.

Can you guess which three books this scene was based on?

My thanks to Jack for his time and the ACT Writers Centre for arranging the event.