The Horrors of Writing

I've finally completed my script for Young Herbert's Horrors. Writing the script, I have to admit, has been a bit like Young Herbert himself, a bit of handful. It's given me a lot of fun and a few laughs but also plenty of sleepless nights. So how did I finally get Young Herbert under control?

Young Herbert's Horrors was conceived one night when, trying to get my three young children to bed, I found myself outside the house knocking on the bedroom window dressed as Wee Willie Winkie. I had tried pleading, shouting, threatening and laying on the floor pretending to have a heart attack but they had just stepped over me and carried on playing. Increasingly desperate, I told them that if they didn't go to bed soon they should expect a visit from Inspector Laws, our not-so-friendly imaginary member of the local constabulary. And when that didn't work, I turned to one of the richly drawn characters provided by the world of children's literature, good old Willie Winkie himself. Unfortunately dressing up in my wife's dressing gown with a pair of white underpants on my head only made things worse. 

It was later that evening when they were finally settling down, when my three year old told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn't stop misbehaving and ordering him to go to bed he would call Inspector Laws himself and have me arrested. My first thought was "What a cheek! I'm supposed to be in charge here!" closely followed by "And what for? Impersonating Wee Willie Winkie!" But my third thought was "Wow! What a great idea. What would happen if the children were suddenly to gain control of all the beasts and bogeymen the adults had threatened them with! That sounds like a great adventure story."

I was very grateful to my son for what seemed like a really good idea. However with the kind of brain I have (I've been diagnosed as dyslexic and suspect there's a bit of ADHD there too), it's not usually ideas I'm short of - the challenge for me is sticking with a project long enough for it to become a finished piece of work. Over many years of writing (and not writing) professionally I have worked out a few strategies to help me complete work and I used all of them to make Young Herbert's Horrors come to life...


Luckily being a children's writer is definitely a job where day dreaming comes in very handy. If I don't find myself dreaming about a particular poem or story I know it isn't going to be one that is likely to see the light of day. I have to be interested.  Out of this early day dreaming came the idea that this work would be a spoken word theatre show, that it would be about the relationship between a mother and a son, that this family lived on a boat on the river, that the son wanted to be a pirate, that there might be cautionary tales involved and that the son's name would be Herbert and the title would be something like Young Herbert and The Horrors.


Most of my day dreams don't live long enough to be realised into works of art. But if a day dream reoccurrs enough it might start to develop into a story.  I need to find a way to wrestle control of it though - and the best way for me to do this is to turn it into a project and make it REAL WORK. To make a children's spoken word show sustainable, it helps if you can find a theatre producer, and quite possibly a set designer and composer, though if you go down this route it will inevitably mean applying for some kind of funding. I'm lucky enough to have built a great partnership with Half Moon over the last few years. But before that I collaborated with friends and booked my own gigs at Fringe festivals. Just putting my name in a brochure and inviting an audience meant that I had to deliver.

I can understand why many artists - especially dyslexic artists - are put off the administrative process of applying for funding from organisations like the Arts Council. However, for me I find it an important part of my artistic process. Not only am I preparing how my project will be realised practically, I'm also forced to think more deeply about the concepts and themes behind the show, and as I do so I find that I continue to develop the story in my day dreams too. While I was writing the GFA application form, I found that a few ideas for other characters and particular  scenes  were becomming more visually real in my mind, even if they did not yet have words.


Once I'd completed my Arts Council application, I tried to forget about the project as much as possible. In some ways this is self-protection because I knew that if it didn't get funded the chances of me making the show ever would be seriously compromised. And also, I had other work to do and dream-clouds to chase.

When to my delight the funding eventually came through, I began to day dream the story once again with renewed passion. But I was scared of making a serious start on the writing. I knew that the first things I wrote would be messy and awkward and fail to live up to the glory of the story as I'd imagined it.  So I gave myself a further month off - a chance to read and research tangetically and without pressure around the show's themes. I browsed a few children's non-fiction books about pirates and I read - for the first time ever - Treasure Island. I revisted some of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales and also Henrich Hoffman's Struwwelpeter and happily agreed to read my kids the David Walliam's World Worst Children books. Trying to get my head around why it is we adults might want to tell our children cautionary tales I also tackled The Uses Of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelhelm which explores the meaning and importance of fairy tales. I am not sure exactly what I got out of this for Young Herbert but I've now noticed  that there is a strong fairy tale element to the final script in at least one aspect - the transformation of the mother character from a loving to a threatening entity (and back again).

This was all enjoyable research but since I'm not in any circumstances a fast reader by the time I'd got to the end of Bettelhelm's book I'd grown impatient to begin.


A large feature of the project funding was to engage young people and their parents in the discussion of the themes as I was writing the script. Running poetry writing workshops in schools and community settings is something which I enjoy in it's own right but it also feeds into my writing process. It's not that I stole the ideas the children and parents used in their own writing (honest!) but it was good to check my own ideas up against theirs and to try out some early pieces of work to see if they would appeal to the age group. Working in this way gave me a set of useful deadlines and reminded me that however lonely the job of writing can sometimes feel the ultimate aim is to connect to your audience. I worked in a hospital nursery, several primary schools and in libraries and after-school clubs where I could talk to parents and children together. I came up with a writing template that made writing individual cautionary tales easier for children and we also wrote poems about good and "naughty" behaviours, pirates and child-parental relationships. (See the blog to follow for examples!)


You may already have noticed that sometimes I find actually getting down to the work difficult! I usually begin writing in small doses in my notebook, but when it comes to getting a script together I need to sit at a desk with a computer. But - as usual - there were so many distractions! I started writing in the late summer months and had my windows open. I was only a few lines in when I overheard my next door neighbour chatting to my landlord about why his dog was barking so loudly - it was because he was trying to introduce him to the pig he was also keeping in the house and so far they weren't getting on so well. A pig in the house! I couldn't help but think real life was writing a better story than I was.

Because it often takes much less than a barking dog and a pig next door to distract me, I find working with an editor (or in my earlier days a very kind friend) very useful in the writing process. In this project as with my last show Big Wow Small Wonder I worked with a brilliant writer called Rosemary Harris. Rosie was great at questioning everything I wrote  and making me work harder! She was particularly invaluable in making sure the story was a clear as possible for the age group and that the poetic writing enhanced rather than got in the way of the clarity, though that sometimes meant loosing some of my favourite lines.  Her most important role though was to keep me writing. I should add that working with friends can backfire if they are as prone to procrastination as you are, but this wasn't the case with Rosie. In the end I sent her six versions before her work was done - and then I did a seventh edit with the director in which I managed to cheekily sneak back one or two of my favourite lines!


No matter however much collaborative work I build into the process, ultimately there comes a time when I just have to sit alone and write. Starting the writing slightly behind schedule  adds a bit of pressure that helps me concentrate, but I know that I can't leave it so late that the panic begins to impact the quality - and crucially underminds my inner-confidence that I am finally going to produce.

The day dreaming is a delight but all the horror of writing is in the middle part, especially the beginning of the middle when you are putting the first words down on paper. By the time I was on the third draft and the plot was making sense and the poetry beginning to sing, rather than being easily distracted from my writing, the writing became the thing that was distracting me from everything else.

Which, eventually, brings me to the finished script. Next week I complete the creative circle, by putting on my costume and acting the story out. This time though I will not be dressing up as Wee Willie Winkie but, instead, as Young Herbert's Great Uncle Albatross.



Justin chambers-coe