A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Work that imagination! by Liz de Jager


I loved Emma’s write-up on Monday for this week’s subject we’re focussing on: writing exercises.

I’m a big fan of writing exercises and, to be honest, sometimes these exercises lead to a short story or even a novel and more often than not, an actual breakthrough in your current writing project.

Years ago I did a school event at a school in West Wickham. I had not done one before and I was scared senseless. I had decided to talk about what I did as my hobby: I blogged about books and reading but the teacher & librarian (herself a published fantasy writer and someone I admire greatly) asked me to talk to the classes about my own writing. She was keen to have them see it from a non-professional’s point of view. This was pre-agent, pre-Blackhart trilogy and pre-anything to do with publishing.  Again, the thought scared the colour out of my hair.

But, I gathered my writing goodies, my Storyworld prompt cards, including freebie books to give away along with notebooks as prizes and off I went. I was heavily laden, let’s put it that way.


The day went fantastically well, I had great fun and met a lot of great teachers and pupils. I was there for a full day and the last class was the ‘difficult’ class and I had been warned that I may have my hands full with them. It was hot, they were bored and wanted to get home. As before, I pulled out these storytelling cards I’d bought some time ago and had been using on and off as prompts for myself. I held these cards up and asked them to pay attention. They sat up a little straighter. I instructed that each of them was to draw two cards as the decks came round. I wanted them to look at the pictures and write down, without really thinking, what their impressions were of those cards. I urged them to keep it clean. There was a lot of laughter.


The decks went around. I was nervous but the teacher looked like he wanted to throw up. There was talking and muttering but the heads bent over notebooks and they started writing. I gave them five minutes and asked for volunteers to stand up and read what they had written. I also asked them what cards they had drawn and why they had written what they had written.


It was incredible! The teacher was making notes of the cards and the pupils who were standing up to talk. These weren’t kids who were readers or writers or who particularly cared about being clever. They wanted to be out and about and yet these cards had caught their imaginations and because they had nothing better to do for an hour, they played the what-if game and to their shock (and to some of their horror, which I could actually see on their faces) they realised they liked playing this game because there were no rules. You just had to write what you saw and thought.

We talked about writing for the rest of the class. I read them some of what I was working on (Banished) and they loved that the girl was so badass. They asked questions and they asked about the cards. They kept talking and we spoke about movies and tv shows that they love watching. Some of them never actually realised that PEOPLE WROTE THOSE THINGS. We talked about comics, a lot. Again, they didn’t know that this was a thing people did for a living. I could see lights come on in these kids’ eyes. We talked about gaming and that there were people who wrote the overall narrative for the big games, even the shoot ’em ups. I told them where to find movie scripts and tv scripts and where to go and look for movie and tv scripts and heads bent over notebooks once more.


The teacher asked if he could borrow the cards for the week and give them back to the librarian to give back to me. He wanted to try the cards out on his other classes. I was reluctant, but said yes.

I got the cards back a week later and the librarian, this fantasy writer, gave me the longest hug. She said my visit had been a huge success. The kids loved me. They loved the card writing exercises and the teacher had gone and bought all the decks available. But, she said, more importantly, in that final class there had been some trouble-makers. They had zero interest in anything literary, the one boy had severe dyslexia, and although he was intelligent enough, he just never applied himself because he hated reading so much. But, after the cards and the exercises, he had realised that he did like stories, he loved movies and gaming and that he saw scenes vividly in his mind but he struggled to put them down on paper. When I had talked about scripts I had quickly pulled up on my laptop what a script looked like, not thinking anything of it. This boy, this troublemaker who had issues both at home and at school, went to the librarian and had asked her to get in some books on writing scripts for movies because, he said, he could do that, because it would be like when I was there, writing down what he saw on the cards. Long narrative scared him, but he loved the idea of writing scenes and dialogue and he felt strongly he could do that.


I burst out in tears. I mean, what could I say?

The moral of the story is: writing exercises really do work. Try them. They open your mind and, if you let yourself sit back and just play with ideas rather than just staring at that blank screen or page, you’ll find yourself tapping into that well in your subconscious where all the clever, weird and tricksy things live. The good stuff.

About Liz

Liz de Jager drinks too much tea, has too many notebooks and books crammed on her bookshelves. She is owned by a Jack Russell called Sparrow. Her website is:

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