Chris Priestley has written a fantastic blog for us today all about writing short stories, being a reluctant reader and his latest book Freeze.
Like a lot of writers for children, I get asked to visit schools, to talk about myself and my work and, more often than not, to hold workshops on writing – particularly the writing of short creepy fiction
I wouldn’t say I was a reluctant reader when I was a teenager, but neither was I the avid reader everyone expects writers to be. I loved tv and I loved comics. I loved drawing. Often all at the same time. I think short stories suited my concentration levels and my fidgety imagination.
But I think short stories are great for reluctant (or just impatient) readers. In fact I know they are because teachers tell me all the time.
One of the challenges with a novel is the amount of information the reader is expected to take on board and memorise: character names and description, locations, plot developments. And with each new chapter comes yet more information. Some readers find that difficult. Sometimes I do.
With short stories the reader can delete all the files in their brain associated with that story as soon as it’s over. You will never need to know that character’s name again or that they lived in a house with a green door or had a dog with a limp. New story, blank slate.
The short story form feels very natural to me as a writer and a reader. But they do not necessarily feel natural to young writers and readers who are more used to episodic television and series fiction. But when we ask children to write fiction, what we are asking them to write is in reality a short story (a form they may never have actually read)
As a teenager I loved short story collections like The Pan Book of Horror, but another big influence on my own creepy books for children were horror comics like House of Mystery and portmanteau horror movies like Dead of Night. They had several independent stories carried within another over-arching story and they also had a narrator (or several narrators) telling the stories. This is a structure I have used several times in my books.
This format gives the books a shape that’s more like a chapter book and ties all the stories together. In Seven Ghosts the wraparound story is that of Jake who is listening to the ghost stories in the collection we are reading (told by the guide at Grimstone Hall). As the book goes on we learn more and more about Jake’s connection to the house.
In Freeze, each of the stories is told by a different student. They are telling stories of their own invention in a creative writing workshop. But we are also focusing particularly on Maya and seeing the action through her eyes as she and her three friends become the cast of each story in turn.
That workshop Maya is (a little reluctantly) taking part in – the workshop on writing Winter-themed creepy stories – is one that I’ve given myself, many times in various schools.
Winter is the perfect time for ghost stories – the chilly weather, the long nights and dark days. Giving a theme to the students helps focus their ideas. What are the things we associate with winter? How could they be made creepy?
I particularly wanted to include a story about a flood because when asking for a list of things to do with winter a boy in one workshop said ‘Flooding’. It isn’t something that came straight to my mind – but of course he was right. Depending on where you live, flooding is a more likely event than a snowfall.
To avoid wasting time trying to decide how many characters to have and where the story is set,I often tell the students to have four characters – a group of children just like them, in a school just like theirs.
So when I wrote Freeze I thought I would do the same. I would set the story in a school much like the ones I have visited over the years – maybe in a northern post-industrial town.
In fact I made a conscious effort in both Seven Ghosts and Freeze, to make the protagonists come from backgrounds that are maybe a little under-represented in traditional ghost stories, and have them live in places more like the council estate I lived in when I read all those creepy short stories as a teenager – and dreamt of writing my own one day.
Freeze is published by Barrington Stoke and is available now!