“I still get tired and I’m amazed I’ve recovered as much as I have,” says Penny, who has won 12 awards for two of her latest novels for young adults and seen her latest book, Things the Eye Can’t See, shortlisted for more. The abrupt end to her full-time teaching career followed by 10 long years struggling with ME, some of it spent in a wheelchair, has given her a unique insight into living with disability that is a recurrent theme in her writing.
“I loved reading and writing as a child and always wanted to be an author. I realised I must have had something going for me when I won a children’s writing competition at 11. Ironically, ME gave me the time to follow up my passion that three years’ full-time teaching had not.”
After school she did a B.Ed in applied education and psychology at Oxford Brookes University, during which she had to write a children’s book in 1995 as part of her degree. Tutors encouraged her to send it off on spec to a publisher who gave her encouraging feedback and said they’d like to see more. She started work as a primary school teacher but ME struck three years later, causing a determined 25-year-old to start rethinking her career. She began writing her first serious novel in 1997 and saw it published two years later (the first of seven children’s books under her maiden name). She was on her way.
City Lit creative writing courses followed until, in 2003, Penny was invited to teach on the same courses. She currently runs two courses - a Writing for Children workshop and Editing Your Children’s Novel - each lasting 90-minutes per session; the rest of the week is free for her own writing and editing.
Penny says ME has not stopped her getting married or having two children but it still restricts her from doing too much. Aside from her own writing, what inspires her and helps her fight to beat her condition is the challenge of coming up with creative solutions and different teaching techniques to help others improve their writing. “It’s about listening to students’ work being read out and their requests about how to improve it, providing them with feedback and sometimes seeing solutions really clearly that no one else has thought of.
“I love helping people get published or write for their own pleasure and that of their children and grandchildren. I use lots of skills from primary school teaching - it’s not just about talking to people for 90 minutes but getting them to learn by trying all sorts of different activities.
“For instance, remote teaching via Zoom this term has meant I’ve been able to split a large class of students (16) into three smaller groups for, say, 20 minutes during each session, so that they each do different activities in rotation each week - one group could be workshopping (giving feedback on each other’s work), another researching publishing agents with all groups pooling each other’s findings at the end of the course, while a third could be discussing recent books they’ve read.
“Creating Zoom break-out rooms for each group avoids the inevitable disturbance you get doing that in a live class. At the end of term, people tell me how much they have valued and bonded with the others in their groups and how they stay in touch after their course has ended.”
Similarly, Penny will often put people in pairs or threes to encourage interaction and get to know each other. “They’ll then often form critique groups and meet after classes - I still attend a fortnightly writers’ workshop we formed 21 years ago after a City Lit Class!”
One of her students, Attiya Kahn (recently profiled in our Inspiring Student Journeys series), picks out Penny’s empathetic approach and her ability to understand the issues Attiya was tackling in her own writing.
“I remember Penny as a quiet and effective teacher, who encouraged us all to speak and then spoke from her own experience. She really listened to our contributions and ‘got’ my book. She understood the cultural and religious issues I was trying to convey in a non-judgmental way. And she always encouraged friendships in our classes, which are key to building a happy, productive course.”
In turn, Penny recalls Attiya as someone “wearing millions of hats, incredibly committed, enthusiastic and determined. She “had potential and really listened”, shining out as a student prepared to take notice of everything others said and make the necessary changes to her writing.
Penny also recognises Attiya, a part-time GP, as a kindred spirit in taking on tough issues they have both met first-hand: religion, culture and racism in Attiya’s forthcoming teen fiction novel, Ten Steps to Us, and disabilities such as ME in Penny’s recent writing.
Part of Penny’s success as a teacher that Attiya recognises is her constant emphasis on class participation. To keep students aware of the latest developments in children’s fiction writing, Penny regularly compiles reading lists of new children’s literature for students taking her ‘Reading for Children’s Writers’ course each autumn, which range from picture books to young adult fiction. Some students will just pick out one or two titles while others will get through up to 20 in a term, but regardless of how many or how few they read, Penny will bring in extracts from books each week to discuss so they get to know which ones they fancy reading.
“I also enjoy examining books full of brilliantly delineated characters and working out with my students just how the author does that. We’ll talk about the various techniques and then I’ll set an exercise where the students incorporate the technique into their own writing. I get very good feedback!”
Passing on editing skills is another favourite teaching activity for Penny. “When you have finished your first draft, you need to know how to edit and refine your work, so I take them through the whole process of refining overall structure down to nitty gritty sentence-editing - and there are not many courses around that teach that. “I try to be sensitive in my response to other people’s work because the books are their babies, they have created them, so it’s hard to tell someone that, for instance, they need to cut out a certain character. In the end they have to decide which feedback to follow, it’s their story after all.
“Sometimes you may do one thing and later realise you need to do the other, but I don’t advise changing everything, I say take the feedback you feel you can follow and see the difference that makes. As a fellow author I can’t say definitely this or that will or won’t work and that a publisher will go for a certain approach.”
But isn’t it hard to remain dispassionate about your own work? Penny’s advice is to put away a finished draft for a couple of weeks, start something else, and then come back to it fresher with more distance. Sometimes, at the start of a workshop, students will get freaked out by others’ suggestions but they then begin to value other opinions more when they start making small changes and see improvements.
Penny has been teaching similar courses at City Lit since 2003, so what keeps her going? “Every group is different and so diverse,” she says. Often former students come back to repeat the same course for that reason - to meet new people with new ideas discussing new books in new ways. Penny says she’s always seeking fresh approaches to her courses: “People love the social networking and discussions are never the same. There’s always more to learn!”
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