Monday Musings: Denny Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Untitled

William Dugdale’s map from his 1662 history of the fens, showing the southern fenland before drainage, including Milton, Waterbeach and Denny Abbey. From: David Hall and John Coles, Fenland Survey (London, English Heritage, 1994)

As part of the research for Novel 2, I spent two days back in the familiar surroundings of Cambridgeshire last week. The time travel antics of Novel 2 are focused on a very specific section of the old medieval fenland; the area surrounding Milton and Waterbeach. (The map to the left gives you some idea of how this area might have looked before the fens were drained.) On this trip, I wanted to investigate Denny Abbey, which was founded in 1159 as a Benedictine monastery, but during the fourteenth century, when the time travel bits of my novel are set, was one of only three Poor Clare communities in England at the time. Both Denny and the neighbouring Waterbeach Abbey, which no longer stands, were vulnerable to floods in the medieval period, but Denny is set on a relatively high island of high ground. When the two foundations were merged by the Countess of Pembroke in 1351, the Waterbeach nuns only slowly and reluctantly left their flood-prone abbey, partly due to fears that it would fall into lay ownership. By 1359, Waterbeach was deserted and ‘well-nigh desolate’. Denny, in a satisfyingly symmetrical contrast, hung on until dissolution in 1539.

denny abbeyFor a modern visitor, especially one who is playing with ideas of time travel, the most fascinating aspect of Denny Abbey is the fact that it is ‘deconstructed’. The building has been continuously rebuilt and extended since its foundation, moving from a Benedictine monastery to a retirement home for Knights Templars to a Franciscan nunnery to a farmhouse. When English Heritage acquired it in the 1960s, they deliberately deconstructed the building to ‘show off the different layers and architectural styles’ [sign in the abbey]. This has led to some fascinating juxtapositions:

denny outside 2denny upstairs nuns door denny

Because the different versions of this building are literally layered over each other, it is difficult to trace the outlines of either the original Benedictine monastery or the extensions put in place during the time of the Poor Clares. A part of the fourteenth-century structure has been destroyed; the door pictured to my left would have led into the nuns’ dormitories, but now opens into empty space. It’s a magical and atmospheric setting for an historian or a writer, and reminded me of a very different building, the Church of Santo Domingo in Cuzco, Peru, which was built on the site of Qorikancha, an Inca temple. Despite the Spaniards’ attempts to literally erase Inca history, when earthquakes partly destroyed the church, the remnants of the Inca building reappeared; the Inca walls, in particular, withstood the shocks much better than the Spanish architecture, and so endured. Similarly, this site – though hit by English Heritage rather than an earthquake – is literally a construction of its past.

Notes on visiting Denny Abbey: This site is surprisingly little-known, and is not featured in any of the tourist guides to Cambridgeshire that I have seen. It’s actually an easy 20-min journey from central Cambridge on the Stagecoach 9 bus. If you get off at the Research Park near Landbeach, the abbey is a short 15-minute walk away. You’ll find it on your right after walking straight up the road that the bus continues its journey on. Or you could drive, but that would be less exciting.

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‘They were paid to watch’

51m2bP-PgaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Owen Sheers is one of the handful of authors whose writing I always find both admirable and emotionally engaging, whether he’s immersing his readers in an imagined German occupation of Britain in 1944 or a semi-fictional biography of his great-great uncle’s travels as a missionary in Zimbabwe. I was surprised, then, at how much I struggled with his novella, White Ravens, when I read it a couple of years ago. This retelling of the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, the second branch of the Mabinogion, seemed both to showcase Sheers at his best and slip into surprisingly amateurish prose; for example, flat dialogue and obvious ‘telling’ which seemed totally inexplicable, given Sheers’s evident skill as a writer. Nevertheless, I was eager to read his newest book, and confident that these weird slip-ups in White Ravens were an aberration; perhaps an indication that he had finished this novella too quickly, or that he had struggled to match the incredible force of the opening of his retelling. What I found was that this sort of prose was not completely absent from I I Saw A Man. But, having finished this compelling novel, I felt that I understood a little better why such a sure-footed writer occasionally strays into this style.

Major Daniel McCullen is an American drone pilot. Though he once flew combat missions in the old-fashioned, hands-on way, his commute to work down Highway 95 has become the only chance he has to separate his home life from the deadly missiles that he launches remotely from Creech Air Force Base. ‘They were paid to watch. This was their job… In Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, by the time his bombs detonated, his missiles hit, he was already miles away, flying faster than the speed of sound… At Creech he still didn’t hear his munitions detonate, but despite being even further from the battlefield, he saw everything.’ Tracking down one target, a man called Ahmed al Saeed, Daniel watches him join in with the football games of local children in Baghdad, deliberately diving the wrong way to let a child score a goal, before Daniel obliterates him with the touch of a button. Daniel’s distance from reality, however, is not the main concern of this novel. Its central focus is another man approaching middle age, Michael, who has achieved success as a writer through carefully watching other people’s lives until he can imaginatively inhabit them, melding them into memoirs while cutting off contact with the actual subjects. Mourning the death of his wife, Michael finds solace through his friendship with the family next door in London, Samantha, Josh and their two small daughters.

If you’re wedded to the idea that a writer needs to show not tell (I’m not), you won’t get along with I Saw A Man. Telling is what this novel is designed to do, a narrative choice which holds the reader slightly apart from its characters, much as Daniel is distanced from his targets or Josh from his subjects. Yet, by making the choice to tell us so much about his characters’ lives, Sheers taps into the power of storytelling, a narrative drive that is sometimes difficult to achieve through the detailed showing of characters’ interactions. And in the sections of the novel that are paced in real time – as Michael walks slowly through his neighbours’ house, feeling that something is wrong – the stories that bookend this exploration lend it a depth and tension that it would otherwise have lost. The result is a literary novel that reads like a thriller, a target that many authors have aimed for and so few have hit.

And the clunky writing? While the examples of this are too few to mar the novel in any way, I was interested in why this happened, and if it might explain my earlier problems with White Ravens. The prose feels awkward, most often, when Sheers starts to introduce dialogue, or real-time action, into the main sections of the novel; in other words, when he tries to ‘show’ at a point when it feels more natural for him to still be ‘telling’. When Michael talks with his wife Caroline about a dangerous journalistic assignment she is taking on, the scene feels almost hasty, as if Sheers wants to quickly establish a mood and move on to tell us more, rather than delve into the psyches of these two individuals:

He lifted his feet off her lap and leant forward, taking her face in his hands. “Just,” he said, kissing her lightly, “be careful.”

Her lips were warm and as she kissed him back, pulling him to her, her mouth tasted of the onion she’d been eating as she cooked. “Thank you,” she whispered, putting her arms about his neck. “I owe you one Mikey boy.”

This problem largely disappears in the second half of the novel, confirming my suspicion that, as with White Ravens, the occasional clunk comes from an author who seems almost too involved with the pace of his own narrative, writing these placeholder scenes so he can move on to what happens next. Unlike White Ravens, however, the payoff is evident in I Saw A Man, which I found genuinely difficult to put down. Like Daniel, we don’t want to watch the tragedy that plays out, but are compelled to anyway.

I received a free copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley. It’s out now in the UK.

‘Game, narrative or performance?’

9780520284920In one of the novels I’m currently working on, one of the key plotlines focuses on two sisters who create an imaginary world set in a medieval castle. They play their ‘game’, as they call it, throughout adolescence, developing a closely-knit and thoroughly-imagined cast of characters. Their ‘game’ has no rules, at least no rules that can be spoken. However, both sisters are acutely aware of when something has been said or done that violates the reality of the world in which their game is told. They’re not interested in historical accuracy, or even in strict continuity (lettuces grow in winter, monks live in a castle and most days seem to be Sundays) but they are deeply invested in the continuity of their characterisation, and the way in which it interacts with the way the castle community works. (Unsurprisingly, this plot line builds very loosely on games that my sister and I played, although sadly we never had a medieval castle!)

In Dangerous Games, philosopher Joseph P. Laycock puts forward a spirited defence of the value of imaginary role-play. The book’s ostensible focus is on religious reactions against popular RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), and the fears engendered by events such as the Columbine shootings that role-playing and video games can lead their participants to lose touch with reality. The central, controversial argument that emerges from his discussion is that imaginary worlds serve a similar purpose for humans to religions; they allow us to create meaning through world-building. Therefore, the people who have a problem with distinguishing between fantasy and reality are not those who play RPGs but the new religious right, who ignore the value of biblical stories as representative myths, and insist on interpreting them as the literal truth. I won’t engage with the detail of Laycock’s argument here, because I want to discuss another aspect of this fascinating, energetic and thought-provoking book; what makes a game productive and meaningful, rather than an idle amusement?

Laycock is clear that he sees collaborative creativity as central to game-playing, dismissing video games such as World of Warcraft as insignificant in this context, although he is at pains to stress that he doesn’t think such games are harmful. However, at times he seems to go even further. Dangerous Games talks about RPGs and ‘paracosms‘, detailed imaginary worlds, as if they are virtually interchangeable, and defines them in similar ways. Role-playing is valuable because ‘it combines imaginative play, which comes naturally to children, with complex rules and mathematical models’, while paracosms similarly ‘create a mental space from which the real world can be reflected upon and analysed.’ He is emphatic that you can gain new, real-world competencies through playing games, that these are not just pointless leisure activities, and I think anybody who had played such a game would agree. However, as most of his experience seems to have been focused on ‘traditional’ RPGs such aD&D rather than more nebulous paracosms, he occasionally seems to suggest that clear boundaries are necessary for the magic to happen: ‘While not all fantasy role-playing games have cumbersome rules, most cannot be played without an impartial referee who adjudiates the outcomes of the characters’ interactions within the imaginary world.’

While Laycock’s analysis of the importance of games is welcome and important, I don’t think that all play of this kind fits into his definitions. Imaginary games can be managed from within as well as from without. Some paracosms are meticulous in their concern with history, geography and language; some are not concerned with these things at all, which does not mean that they are like children’s games. Early in Dangerous Games, Laycock plays with the question of whether imaginary worlds are more like ‘a game, a narrative or a performance?’ but claims that this isn’t something that is helpful to think about too closely. To an extent, he’s right, because imaginary worlds clearly draw on all three of these categories, and this isn’t something that is difficult to prove. However, I think it is important to consider paracosms that are definitely not RPGs, and that perhaps teach different skills. World-building is valuable; but so are characters and their relationships, even if they have to get along in a world where it is Sunday every day.

Monday Musings: The child’s voice

Aged 10, when I wrote the diary in question.

Aged 10, when I wrote the diary in question.

I recently attended a seminar on the child’s voice at Magdalen College, Oxford, one of a series of seminars in the history of childhood that I’ve been going to intermittently for the past few years. (Historians of childhood and youth should note the upcoming colloquium on July 4th – the details are in the link above). At this seminar, alongside an interesting mini-presentation on the global distribution of Sesame Street, some of us brought in old childhood diaries to share with the group. I haven’t yet used this type of source in my own research – the closest I’ve come is handling autobiographies that describe a remembered childhood – so my thoughts are really more about my own childhood then serious historical reflection. Still, the seminar raised some interesting questions for me.

I kept some sort of diary as a child on and off from the age of five, but the formats varied a lot. The diary I’m going to discuss in this post had short slots for each day, so the amount I could write was limited, and I remember being annoyed by that at the time. I was ten years old when I wrote this diary, and in Year Five at junior school. While a lot of it is very boring, some of the entries made me think about how many of the gaps I fill in when I re-read my old diaries, and how much harder this would be for an historian who hadn’t written the texts themselves.

UntitledFirst, I definitely wrote in what I thought was an appropriate ‘diary style’, drawing on two major influences: Enid Blyton and Jacqueline Wilson. I can hear Blyton’s school stories in entries such as ‘I had a row with C— today. She is definitely jealous of me. I did not like it much but it was very exciting.’ The girls at Malory Towers were always having ‘rows’ with each other, and I remember feeling pleased that something really worthy of record had happened in my life. The same voice pops up in complaints about teachers as well: ‘I HATE MRS —. She is an old meanie.’ Jacqueline Wilson’s writing style is probably more influential on the diary as a whole, which is full of emotion, loves and hates, echoing the narrative voices of some of her earlier books such as Double Act, The Story of Tracy Beaker and The Bed and Breakfast Star. Some of my illustration attempts also copy the style of Nick Sharratt, especially the way he draws in Wilson’s novel Cliffhanger. You can see this in the picture above, which I drew in response to some exciting events in games at school: ‘We played kicking rounders in games and J— kicked the ball so hard it stuck in the rafters!’

lib demsSecond, I often dutifully recorded events that I thought were important and hence ‘diary-worthy’, even if I wasn’t really interested in them myself. This diary was written in 1997, so there were a lot of these about. In May, ‘Tony Blair is the new prime minister. He got 4 hundred and something MPs. The Liberal Democrats got forty something.’ (Followed by much more important news the next day: ‘I GOT A GUINEA PIG!’) Princess Diana, however, only got a mention when events actually impinged on my life: ‘PRINCESS DIANA’S FUNERAL ON TV. No post today.’ Occasionally, I would write down observations that were slightly more off the beaten track: ‘We went to see 101 Dalmatians today… On the way home, Daddy said where the cinema was was fields a while ago and by 2015 road traffic would double.’ (Fortunately, he was wrong!)

motherThirdly, the format of the diary itself encouraged me to write in a more ‘childlike’ style, because I thought it suited the diary and because there was very little space to fill in for each day. (In my next diary, kept when I was 11/12, I wrote only intermittently but often filled several pages for every day, which was possible because it was only a notebook). The diary I had also occasionally included little questions to fill in. I usually gave these short shrift because I suspected that ‘good’, ‘nice’ answers were expected. For example, I impatiently wrote ‘will not grow up to be just like my mother because… we want to be different things and are different from each other.’

I suppose the upshot of all this is: how can an historian read a child’s diary when he/she doesn’t have access to all this information that fills in the background of the entries? Obviously, this is a problem for adult diaries as well, but I suppose I find it particularly troublesome for children because I know how simple my thoughts look in my diary compared to how complex my inner life actually was at that age, which feeds into existing stereotypes about how deeply children can feel, or how much they understand. This, of course, is not to say that such diaries shouldn’t be used as sources; indeed, I think they can be incredibly valuable. But using them thoughtfully requires some intense consideration of one’s own beliefs about the ‘child’s voice’ and about ‘childhood’, if those assumptions are not to get in the way.

I have removed the names of classmates and teachers from the diary entries quoted here. I’ve also corrected spellings.

Structured to the bone

9780812996340One issue I had on my previous blog was that I would sometimes become so involved with picking apart the problems in a book that I would forget to say that I liked it. The result: a series of reviews that seemed to suggest that I wouldn’t recommend anything I’d read recently to other busy, critical readers. To be clear, then; I enjoyed reading Sara Nović’s debut, Girl at War. It’s an engaging, involving and moving novel that has the welcome side benefit of teaching the reader a little about civil warfare in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, if he/she does not already possess such knowledge. My problems with it were not because it doesn’t work as a novel; it’s almost because it works too well.

Ana Jurić is a ten-year-old girl growing up in Zagreb, largely unaware of the tensions escalating around her after Croatia’s declaration of independence in June 1991. The immediate crisis in her world revolves around her little sister, Rahela, who is chronically ill. When her family arrange to have Rahela evacuated to America as her condition worsens, they are forced to cross the border to reach a medivac station that might save their daughter’s life. The chain of events this sets in motion destroys Ana’s world as she knows it. When the narrative picks up ten years later, Ana is a college student in New York, but invitations from the UN continue to link her to her fractured childhood, despite her refusal to tell her friends about her past. Inevitably, Ana decides that she must return to a now-independent Croatia and try to put the pieces together.

This novel is incredibly easy to summarise, because its structure is so clear. This is, in many ways, a good thing; no-one wants to read a narrative that feels rambling and incoherent. Yet, Girl at War works so smoothly that it’s very difficult to forget that we are reading a constructed story. Nović effectively hides her workings, the false starts and loose ends that dog any first draft of a novel, but the result is so seamless that it almost feels mechanical. You could sit down with this novel on a creative writing course and take it apart to demonstrate three-act structure, the protagonist’s journey, the raising of the stakes. It’s so functional that the narrative is robbed of some of the emotional weight it should carry, although it did still move me. I couldn’t help thinking of Tea Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife when reading this novel, another story set among Balkan wars, and the richness of its multiple narratives. In contrast, Girl at War feels colourless, a little flat.

I struggled especially with the first section of this novel, and was delighted by how it picked up after the first act. War through the eyes of a child is such a familiar theme that it’s tremendously difficult to make it feel fresh. Nović does, in fact, have some interesting things to say about child soldiers, and children and violence more generally, but they come later, in the form of flashbacks. Ana, like so many protagonists, is defined by what happens to her rather than who she is as a person. This isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw – not all novels need to be character-driven – but it makes the relatively uneventful opening of Girl At War a slow read, because nothing has yet happened to Ana, and so we know very little about her. The skilful structure comes into its own at the end of the first act, when Nović employs a genuinely surprising twist, and from then on, I found the story much more gripping.

I’ll be interested to see what Nović writes next, because there’s no doubt that this is a successful debut. Her strong handling of structure, of story-form, should not be underestimated; but I wanted a little more voice, a little more personality, and I suppose, a little more heart in this novel that contains such loss.

I received a free copy of this book directly from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. It’s out now in the UK.

Laura Rereading: ‘I belong to him’

773507Most of us will know LM Montgomery as the author of the Anne of Green Gables books. As an adult, I found that I had outgrown Anne but not Emily, her lesser-known but far more memorable creation. Emily stars (see what I did there, Emily fans?) in three novels set on Prince Edward Island published between 1923 and 1927, of which Emily’s Quest is the last. I’m going to summarise its plot for those who are not familiar with it, so if spoilers concern you, look away now. This novel – which is absolutely written for adults, rather than for children – sees Emily, now a young woman, continuing to pursue her ambition to be a successful writer. However, she is also involved in a turbulent relationship with her childhood sweetheart, Teddy Kent. When Emily believes that things are finally over between her and Teddy, and – crucially, I think – that her dream of becoming a published novelist is dead, she seeks comfort in an engagement to a much older man, Dean Priest, who has also been a friend of hers since her early adolescence. For a modern audience, there is something distinctly creepy about Dean’s obvious romantic interest in Emily at their first meeting, when she is a thirteen-year-old girl. While not wanting to minimise the disturbing nature of Emily’s relationship with Dean, I think to focus too much on how unhealthy this pairing is would be to miss the broader themes of Emily’s Quest. Montgomery seems to me to portray Dean in such a dark light not because, in modern terms, he is ‘grooming’ Emily, but because the nature of his love is so obsessive. When he proclaims to Emily after their first meeting, ‘I think I’ll wait for you’, it’s less illuminating to read him as a danger to young girls and more illuminating to see this as the first instance of a trend that continues into their adult relationship; the fact that he wants to own Emily completely. As he says to her during the same meeting, after rescuing her from tumbling down a cliff: ‘you see your life belongs to me henceforth… Since I saved it it’s mine.’

The most important manifestation of Dean’s possessive love is his jealousy of Emily’s writing. He lies to her about how talented he thinks she is, because he believes that if she is truly successful she will leave him. When she breaks their engagement, he finally admits that he was wrong, but only after she has put her work aside for many months, justifying it to herself and to her worried Aunt Laura: ‘Here I am, going to be married, with a prospective house and husband to think about. Doesn’t that explain why I’ve ceased to care about – other things.’ In the second book in the series, Emily Climbs, Emily and Teddy’s friendship stands in contrast to Dean’s suppression of Emily’s gift, as Emily and Teddy plan together to conquer the world with their artistic talents. Nevertheless, when Emily is left unsure of Teddy’s feelings for her at the end of that novel, she is not plunged into despair. She writes in her diary: ‘I could care tremendously for Teddy Kent if I let myself – if he wanted me to. It is evident he doesn’t want me to… He has forgotten our exchange of glances in the old John house.’ She is conscious of ‘three sensations’; feeling ‘sternly composed and traditional’, having to keep down ‘something that would hurt horribly if I let it’ but, finally, ‘a queer feeling of relief that I still have my freedom.’ To the careful reader, this last sensation should be unsurprising, despite the fact that Emily is obviously in love with Teddy. It can be traced back to their realisation of their feelings for each other in ‘the old John house’, which, for Emily, meant the sense that she ‘was never really to belong to herself again.’

2940016203126_p0_v1_s260x420Emily’s Quest is not a novel about an obsessive lover getting in the way of true, pure love. It’s a novel about obsessive love, full stop, and it’s clear that such obsession is no less damaging for its being mutual. When Emily is really confident of Teddy’s feelings for her, she becomes less herself – because exercising her true self is defined as writing. Early in Emily’s Quest, in one of the few snatches of romantic happiness she has with Teddy, she doesn’t write a word: ‘Who cared for laurel, after all? Orange blossom would make a sweeter coronet.’ Emily presents the choice between victory laurels and bridal orange blossom as an either/or; she can’t have both. This isn’t because she doesn’t love Teddy, but because she loves him too much. After their final reunion, her writing is not mentioned again. It might be tempting to ascribe this to the gender norms at play in this 1920s novel, but, given that Emily’s traditional, old-fashioned aunts urge her to carry on writing when she is engaged to Dean, it seems to be less about what is expected of Emily and more about what it is possible for her to do; she is so obsessed with Teddy (and he with her) that there simply isn’t space in her mind and heart for both.  As she says during one of their separations, ‘I belong to him.’

In this way, Dean, alongside Teddy’s jealous mother Aileen Kent (who deserves an essay of her own), is merely a foil for the real possessiveness at the heart of this novel; that of Emily and Teddy of each other. So strongly linked that they rely on a virtually wordless communication, they are not well-served when words are necessary. And although they eventually get their happy ending, it is an ending that feels almost insubstantial, after the solid triumph of the publication of Emily’s first novel earlier in the narrative. It is almost possible, in fact, to question whether or not Emily ever did hear Teddy calling for her again.  Chronology, something that Montgomery keeps a close eye on in all her work, throws their reunion into doubt. It is difficult to date the events of the Emily novels. They certainly take place some time before the books were written, and the beginning of the first book, Emily of New Moon, is probably set at the very end of the 1890s. The problem arises with Emily Climbs, which is all set in the twentieth century (Emily’s diary entries are dated 19-). At the very earliest, we can assume Emily is fourteen in 1900. However, when she is fifteen, the nineteenth century is said to have finished ‘a few years ago.’ So, it might be better to assume she was fourteen in 1902/3. The last certain age given for Emily in the series is twenty-four. After this, but before her reunion with Teddy: ‘Year after year the seasons walked past her door… One winter Mrs Kent died.’ When Teddy calls for Emily in June, we have to assume that three or four years have passed at the very least. Yet if Emily was fourteen in 1902, and twenty-four in 1912, three more years would put them both firmly past the breaking-point, 1914, a date that Montgomery’s final Anne novel, Rilla of Ingleside, demonstrates was fixed upon her memory.

‘Of course Teddy was there – under the firs. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that he would come to her there, in that old-world garden where the three Lombardies still kept guard. Nothing was wanting to bridge the years. There was no gulf. He put out his hands and drew her to him’. This resolution, straightforward on the surface, is, underneath, as ambiguous as the obsessive love affair that proceeded it. In the timeless garden of New Moon, it’s evidently not 1915; so this final reconciliation is not only overshadowed, but possibly erased altogether, by the reality of the First World War.

Monday Musings: The trouble with (writing) teenagers

UnknownTeenagers are so frequently stereotyped in popular culture – and more recently, targeted by neuromyths – that it’s unsurprising that their fictional counterparts often fall into similar traps. Nevertheless, unlike the widespread recognition among authors that writing in a child’s voice is technically challenging, far more writers seem willing to take a stab at the teenage narrator, despite the results so often being unconvincing. Poor teenage voices are particularly common in adult novels largely narrated by adults, but which make use of flashbacks to the protagonist’s teenage years. However complex our hero or heroine is in the present day, you can assume they were a moody, isolated, melodramatic teenager, unless of course they fell victim to a tragic past.

One example of this problematic trend that I recently encountered is TR Richmond’s debut novel, What She Left. Although told primarily in the voices of adults, the novel opens with a thousand-word prize-winning essay by its main character, Alice, purportedly written when she was fifteen years old. Alongside breaking all the rules about good novel openings, the essay singularly fails to convince as the voice of a teenager – a real issue in a novel that is mostly about voice. These thousand words do not read like a prize-winning essay written by a gifted teenager – frankly, they’re an insult to teenage writers, and show a real misunderstanding of how a talented teenager might write. Alice’s essay sounds exactly like an adult trying to write as a teenager, and getting it wrong, slipping into phrases that are too childish: ‘”You’ll change your mind,” mum says about the babies, but she said that about asparagus and I haven’t’ or too self-congratulatory in their ‘knowledge’ of how teenagers ‘really think’: ‘… if Mr DiCaprio is reading this, I am free on Friday…’ (Furthermore, I was born in 1986, like Alice, and by 2001 we were all completely over Leo – he was so 1998! The really important question in 2001, as I’m sure others will agree, was ‘Aragorn or Legolas’?) I was interested to find examples of how real teenage prizewinners might write, and a quick Google led me to these excellent entries for a competition on the theme of ‘Home’. Reading the entries for Key Stage 4, which covers 14-16 year-olds, I found far more imagination, experimentation and originality than ‘Alice’ ever demonstrates – even as an older writer.

How to write a teenage character well, then? The obvious advice, as with any character, is to think of them primarily as an individual, rather than somebody defined by their age. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that you can’t consider how their necessarily more limited life experience has affected them, and how they interact with the cultures that surround them. My go-to example for a convincing teenage voice is Rhys Thomas’s The Suicide Club, because it somehow manages to convey a teenage world that is incredibly specific and yet feels somehow timeless, detailing its characters’ shortcomings without become patronising or stereotypical. Even more difficult, I think, is to engage a reader with the intensity of being a teenager without seeming overdramatic, which is why I think so many authors preserve an ironic distance between themselves and their teenage characters. (Nobody wants to be accused of writing the next Sweet Valley High.) Nevertheless, the experiences we have during our teenage years do matter, and to minimise their importance because it is technically difficult to get readers to connect with them is both disrespectful and lazy. Authors need to approach the question of age with as much thought and care as they would (ideally) give to writing characters of a different gender, race, religion or sexuality, even if the questions they need to ask themselves are different.