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Do school visits get in the way of writing or enhance it?

April 23, 2012

Lari Don
Lari Don is a full-time writer, full-time mother, occasional storyteller, and also spends more than half her working days visiting schools to talk about her books and about pupils’ creative writing (adding up the days for this blog was eye-opening!) Lari is based in Scotland and writes fantasy adventures for 8–12 year olds, as well as picture books and retellings of traditional tales. More information about her Scottish fantasy series First Aid For Fairies And Other Fabled Beasts, her other books and indeed her school visits, can be found on her website: http://www.laridon.co.uk

My first fantasy adventure for children was published four years ago and since then I’ve visited hundreds of schools. Just in the past month, I’ve met 1170 pupils from 19 schools, spending 14 days on the road and several nights away from home.

I’m a fulltime writer, and yet, looking at my diary, you’d struggle to find any days where I sit at my computer writing for a full day.

So why do I do so many school visits? There are three brutally honest answers: because it’s an important part of my income as a writer, because it’s a way of getting my books known and because my publishers expect me to.

And sticking with brutal honesty, it is also true that I get a lot less writing done than I’d like, because I spend a huge amount of time organising these visits, preparing material for them, travelling to the schools, actually meeting the pupils, and (because it takes a lot of physical and emotional energy to stand up and be bouncy about books in front of 30 or 300 kids) recovering afterwards.

But it is also true that I love visiting schools and that I think I am a better writer because I meet so many children.

I get to share my love of books and writing with the age groups I write for and hear their enthusiasm reflected back. I find out what they enjoy reading. I read drafts to them and watch their reactions. I ask about their favourite characters and factor that in when I decide who to focus on in the next book. I prompt children to ask questions about writing, and get so many original and perceptive enquiries that I’m prompted to examine my own writing process. I share my writing techniques and tips, and learn what works best for them and for me.

And I create relationships. I revisit schools, I get emails and letters from readers. I build a fan-base of children keen to read my next book.

I love meeting kids, hearing their ideas, helping them love books and encouraging them to write their own stories. I feel very privileged to have that opportunity regularly, even though it takes a lot of time and energy.

And I’m sure my books are stronger for it. I write about adventures in Scotland’s landscape, so the travelling inspires me more than it tires me. And I write for children, so talking to them about books and testing my stories with them, means what I write is more likely to catch and hold their imagination.

So, if you write for kids, make time to go out and talk to some!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. griselda heppel permalink
    April 23, 2012 2:40 pm

    I take my hat off to you. I can well believe that school visits are exhausting as well as time-consuming – and somehow you do so many AND you fit the writing in! It’s a two way process of course and the feedback and inspiration from such close contact with kids must be invaluable. I’m about to publish my first book for this age range and am plucking up the courage to approach some local schools… your article is inspiring!

    • May 7, 2012 5:27 am

      Congratulations on your first book! And yes, do contact your local schools. I’m sure they would be delighted to hear from you! It can be inspiring for kids to realise that a real person, someone lives near them and speaks like them, can publish a book, so go in there and inspire them!

  2. April 24, 2012 12:05 pm

    I just did my first public speaking event at a school. A college, in my case. I was talking to a group of students close to graduation about how to get a job in journalism (I plugged by Sci-Fi short story series while I was there too). It ate up a lot of my writing time and I was exhausted afterwards, but it also gave me a healthy morale boost. Definitely a worthwhile experience.

  3. May 7, 2012 5:29 am

    James, you’re quite right about the morale boost. Sometimes if a plot isn’t going well, or if I’m struggling to get to grips with a new story, the enthusiasm of readers for my characters and for their own imagination can give me the lift I need to get me back on track. I get back just as much as I give!

  4. May 11, 2012 6:26 am

    I like doing school visits, too, and my public is more adolescents. Keeping their interest is a challenge. Fortunately, I am also a cartoonist, so it helps to illustrate the concepts!

  5. May 14, 2012 5:28 am

    Being able to draw as well must be wonderful – both in creating your books, but also when you’re doing events. I’m occasionally envious of artists who can write (or writers who can illustrate) because it must give you much more control over the look of your work. But then I remember the joy and surprise I get when I see how someone has illustrated one of my picture books, or designed the cover of one of my novels, and I’m glad that I’m part of a team bringing these stories and characters to life! Best of luck with those teenagers, whether you are holding their attention with words or pictures…

  6. May 14, 2012 9:14 am

    @Lari : Ususally I do not work myself on the final art of my book covers. So I do enjoy (or not) discovering what the artist made of it. I sometimes provide very rough sketches. I never had problem with the artist: the graphic designer of the publisher, on the other hand, can wreck the illustration’s effect….

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