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Back to School

When I was asked to write some teacher guidance notes for Heaven Sent, I have to admit I was a bit flummoxed. What the heck were guidance notes, and what would I - someone who stumbles blindly from one thing to another - know about guiding anyone else? Well, it turns out these notes form one of the many tools in a writer’s marketing toolbox. If your book gets selected to be studied by classes in several schools, that’s a lot of potential publicity and book sales ... so, yes, I could see the sense in it.

Of course, understanding the relevance didn’t help me know what to write. What, exactly, would a teacher need to know about a book, beyond the blurb on the cover and a brief rundown of the story? Quite a lot, apparently. But, thankfully, along with the request for these notes, I found I’d been supplied with some cracking examples of teacher guidance notes. Quite a relief until I realised they ranged from the moderately scary (four pages) to the gut-twistingly terrifying (fourteen pages).

They did have a basic format in common, however, so I tried to concentrate on the structure rather than have my eyeballs swivel at the length. So, for any other Teacher Guidance Note virgins out there, the requirements are these:

An author bio/background; a couple of paragraphs detailing the main points of the story; some specific open-ended questions about plot/character/themes and then some gruntier questions which require research, discussion, looking things up and writing extended essays.

What a surprisingly fun exercise it turned out to be! As I got further into it, I found myself mentally transported back to my old high school (hello Bay House!), a hoard of terrified A-level English students gazing up at me as I probed them for evidence that they’d studied every word, considered every nuance of my book! “What did the author mean by this?” I demanded. “How can you account for that?” ‘Write this scene in a different style – think Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare’; “What are the current treatments for scoliosis? Go and look it up NOW and don’t just use Wikipedia!!” I was barking imaginary instructions well into the afternoon and by the time I stopped, I realised I’d written pages and pages of notes.

I felt thoroughly exhausted, but the lovely part was, it made me reconsider my own story and look at it in a new light. It forced me to consider why I’d put in certain scenes where I had; question why I’d written about characters in a particular way. It felt like I’d turned my pockets inside out and found something better than the usual fluff and chewing gum inside. What had begun as an unfamiliar and daunting task turned out to be something that was, actually, pretty cool!

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