Caroline Dunford - author, playwright, journalist & short story writer - on how so many different forms of writing have influenced & informed her work for young adults.
'What do you want to be when you grow up?'
It was my first day at school. I answered instinctively, 'A writer.' Then came a pat on the head followed by the patronising reply, 'Yes, dear, but what do you want to do for a real job?'
This was my first lesson that, not only are adults frequently wrong, but that they can have very rigid ideas of what is possible.
I love writing YA novels because I am writing for an audience who still believes that anything is possible, who are wrestling for the first time with the big questions of what life is all about and who are prepared to follow you in prose in taking leaps into the unknown.
My writing career has been varied. I've written, and still write, in a number of different forms. Each of these has helped me become the writer I am today and has led me to the endlessly exciting world of writing Young Adult fiction.
I had one further attempt as a child to ask for help with my ambition, but my career advisor laughed in my face at the idea of people ever studying creative writing at university. You see, adults often don't have the imagination to see what is coming. It's sad, but many of us put our imagination away when we put away our toys.
By the time I was an adult, I was writing short stories like a woman possessed, sending them off to magazines and watching them all flop back on the doormat with a variety of rejections - from the standard form to the detailed and devastating dissection. I became a journalist. I took a block release course. Fourteen of us sat in class. We were given the notes on a news story and by the end of the course all of us would produce exactly the same story word for word. It was my first serious encounter with craft. I also learned to stay up to three o'clock in the morning if that was what it took to get the story in.
In writing features, I learned the importance of the first sentence. How you had to grab and hold your reader's attention. How each paragraph had to link to the rest in a smooth flow. Every paragraph had to have a fascinating opening sentence and end with a conclusive sentence that also set up the idea of the following paragraph. You could use your imagination in the choice of your language, but the form was prescribed. You also learned to write for your audience. A piece in a daily lunchtime paper is quite different from a 'thinking' piece for a Sunday paper.
I became a theatre critic. I attended more theatre shows in a summer at the Edinburgh Festival than some people attend in a lifetime. I saw them all, from the brilliant to the ones where the entire audience fell asleep. Without knowing it I was learning a lot about playwriting, because my job was to gauge the audience's reaction that night and how the potential audience of the newspaper I was representing would find the play.
I was still getting the short story rejections, but very occasionally a story was now getting accepted. In the background I did a psychology degree, partly because I loved the subject, but also because I believed it would help make my stories more real. I learned real people are more diverse and complicated than any audience could ever believe. But I also learned a great deal about the human psyche.
I became a playwright. This sounds so easy. The reality was I did a number of courses and my stint as a reviewer also helped me enormously. Theatre audiences are predominately young and they demand exciting, dynamic and fresh new writing.
I teamed up with other aspiring playwrights and I read book after book on writing plays; something I had never done with creative writing. But then if imagination and storytelling came easily to me, playwrighting did not.
I spent a lot of time learning the craft of playwrighting. I learnt to never waste a word in dialogue and I learned how, on stage, so much is told without words. Surprisingly I learned how to do the same in prose. I learned how to make characters engage in a dialogue where they spoke about everything but what was on their mind, but that allowed the reader or audience member to painfully follow their real thoughts.
I learnt about acts. How your first act must intrigue and set up your story. I learned the second act is the meat of your story and that the third and final act must be short and dynamic. I learnt about plot reversals and including moments where it looks like everything is lost. Most importantly, I learned the importance of subverting your audience or reader's expectation. Keep them guessing and if it looks like your story is going to be too predictable, then ask yourself; what if you take it another way?
My various writing enterprises taught me the importance of learning your craft. Anyone can improve their writing. But ultimately there is one thing you cannot be taught and one thing only that is required to make a writer. You must need to write as much as you need to breathe. You must know that if anyone forbade you to write for the rest of your life, you would go noisily, violently, insane. For it is this final quality, not publication, that separates a real writer from a want-to-be writer that you cannot help writing, that you cannot stop writing. It is this questing after story, after answers to seemingly unanswerable questions that has led me to the exciting, demanding, endlessly enticing world of Young Adult fiction. A world where your reading audience is prepared to accept that anything is possible.