Episode 1 – The Story Thief Challenges – How to get a story!
Written by Liam (with some help from Aoife) & all photos by Liam (no help from Aoife!)
Writing tips by top author Nigel Quinlan
Oh and if you’re a teacher or librarian or work with kids then check out the guidance for educators including recap questions and advice on how to do the Story Challenge with kids!
My dad says people are held together by stories. Stories we tell ourselves or others. Stories other people tell us. Stories about our past or our future. Dad says everyone is a storyteller, whether or not we know it.
I didn’t believe Dad until everything went wrong, because he wanted a new story.
My name’s Liam. Although that’s not my real name, Dad said we can’t use our real names here. I’m eleven years old. This is what I look like.
The night everything started going wrong was like any other night at first – me and my sister Aoife (also not her real name) had a fight.
It was her fault. I was rearranging some of my books alphabetically in my room. Probably because she hates reading and likes pestering me, Aoife wouldn’t leave me alone. I shouted at her to get out of my room, but instead she went for my books.
She gnashed her teeth, stamped her feet and said, ‘Not leaving! Not leaving!’ Like a seven-year-old, monkey that’s eaten too many sweets, she ran around my bedroom knocking the books down while I screamed, ‘Dad! Dad! Tell her to get out of my room!’
At this point every night, Dad comes in and tells me to put my camera away, tells us to stop fighting and put on our pjs, and asks with a sigh: ‘Why can’t you two get on?’
But that night, Dad didn’t turn up.
Eventually we stopped fighting just to find out what was going on with him. We found him sitting on his bed, staring at the ground. Looking really depressed.
Even though we weren’t in our pjs and hadn’t brushed our teeth, when he noticed us he said, ‘Story?’
Me and Aoife answered, ‘Yes!’, because stories from Dad are the only thing we always agree on. In fact, it’s the only time of the day me and Aoife don’t fight.
You see, Dad is a writer. He writes books for kids. Every night we snuggle up on either side of him in him and Mam’s bed and he makes up a story for us. Even though Aoife’s too hyper to like books, she actually stays still and listens.
Dad’s stories are really good. I don’t understand why his books keep getting rejected by agents and publishers. Mam’s job as a pilot pays for everything, but this means she’s always away with work. Dad brings us to and from school every day, makes dinner and takes care of us. When Mam’s home, she’s tired and stressed and asks Dad if he’s ever going to get a proper job. I think someday Dad’s going to have a hit book like Eoin Colfer so I don’t want Dad to ever give up.
That night, Dad closed his eyes. Me and Aoife watched his face, waiting for the magic to happen.
‘Once upon -‘ Dad’s brow furrowed so I knew he was thinking hard. ‘- a time -‘ His eyes popped open, lit up with that spark that meant he’d thought of a story. He opened his mouth to tell us it. Then –
The room seemed to go cold for a second. I shivered. The spark vanished from Dad’s eyes. His mouth stayed open, but no words came out. He looked terrified.
I said, ‘Dad?’
He shoved past me to get up. ‘Go to bed.’
Aoife went into berserker mode, jumping on the bed, shaking her fists in the air. ‘STORY!’
I was more reasonable. ‘Dad, you always tell us a -‘
We shut up when he roared at us, ‘I don’t have any stories!’
Once he disappeared downstairs, Aoife started crying quietly. Real crying, not just to get something. Maybe if I wasn’t eleven I would have been crying too. My eyes stayed wet even after I rubbed them with my sleeve. Dad never shouts at us.
‘Maybe his writing’s not going well.’
Aoife sniffled. ‘But I want a story.’
So did I. I couldn’t imagine life without my dad’s stories. It would be like Harry Potter without magic. And then I got my great idea. I bet there was a spark in my eyes. I knew how to help Dad get more stories!
Aoife chased after me as I ran into my room, her voice teary. ‘What are you doing?’
Of course, she didn’t. She followed me into my room as I ransacked my shelves until I found the right book.
She didn’t look impressed. ‘He can’t just copy someone else’s story -‘
‘You don’t understand.’ I raced into the spare bedroom Dad calls his office. His computer was still on. Dad had left Twitter open so I carefully typed the author’s name into search and found him.
‘I’ll tell him you used his computer!’
‘Okay, okay, I’ll explain,’ and for a change she shushed. I held up the book. ‘We’ll just ask Nigel Quinlan and -‘
Aoife got it. ‘He’ll tell us how Dad can get more stories for bedtime tomorrow! Yay!’
I got typing.
Dear Mr Quinlan. This is an urgent message. How do you get stories? Liam and Aoife.
I clicked send. Everything was going to be okay.
The next day as Dad picked us up from school, he had a confused look on his face. ‘Liam, I got the weirdest email -‘
Aoife shouted, ‘I told him not to use your computer!’
She’s the worst! ‘Aoife!’ I turned to Dad. ‘I just wanted to help you.’
‘You shouldn’t have used my computer, but well…’ Dad grinned. ‘It’s good advice, actually!’
Aoife kicked me with excitement then rushed over to look at Dad’s phone. ‘What did he say?’
As we stood outside the school gates, Dad read out loud the response from Nigel Quinlan, author of The Maloney’s Magical Weatherbox and The Cloak of Feathers:
Dear Liam and Aoife,
Thank you for your kind email asking me for Writing Advice. No-one ever asks me for advice! This is very exciting for me.
My advice to you is to remember two things:
1. Stories come from outside you. They are made up of all the stuff that’s been coming in through your senses, all the books you’ve read the stuff you’ve watched, the people you’ve known, the news, the landscapes, all these things, big and small. They’re all there in your head there with you.
2. The way to turn these things into stories is to think.
I want to focus on the thinking part, because I had to work a lot of this out myself.
Thinking is a very important thing for a writer to do, and you must do a lot of it, and regularly. Writing down the things you think about is hugely important too, or it just stays in your head or gets forgotten, but thinking is one of those things you do that you don’t even notice you’re doing, like breathing.
The trick is to start noticing your thinking. Soon you’ll find that thinking can be trickier than catching hold of a slippery wet fish in a fast running river with your bare hands, and you can’t even feel your hands because that river is flippin’ freezing.
You can think in all sorts of ways. I like to do it while going for long walks. You can do it while doing any jobs your parents give you in and around the house, or perhaps on the journey to school, or as you cycle, or cook, or garden, or play with Lego. Or perhaps as you do nothing else at all: just sit or lie down or stand and think. The important thing is: it’s just you. No books, no TVs, no phones, no computers, no other people, unless they’re the sort of other people who know when you’re thinking and won’t interrupt. And if you’re in the classroom, then no chatting with friends or messing.
Just thinking might sound boring. People can be a bit scared of being bored. There are so many things to distract you or entertain you, you forget that you have a big bubbling brain of your own that needs to be allowed some time to itself to come up with its own ideas and thoughts.
So here you are, you and your brain. What are you going to write about? What story are you going to tell?
Find something, no matter how small, that catches your attention. An image. A notion. A person. A sensation. An emotion. Pick something at random. Think about it. What is this thing? Where did it come from? Why is it? What happens next? Think think think.
It’s a bit like mindfulness meditation, if you’ve heard of that. Your mind will wander. It will try to focus on other stuff. Don’t get mad or annoyed. Just notice you’re doing it. ‘Oh, look at me, thinking about this other thing, not about my story!’ And bring your mind back to your story and keep thinking about it, and you’ll find your story.
The more you do this, the easier it gets. If you want to be a writer then try to do it every day, but even if you don’t need a story, good thinking is so important. It’s not just for writing. It’s for everything and everyone.
PS: I have a Story Challenge for you, to help you with your story thinking: Close your eyes, then open them and pick the first thing you see. Or open a dictionary and choose the first word your finger points to. Or ask a friend or family member what they’re thinking about right now.
Now that you’ve picked something, think about how you would use it to make a story. It can be serious or silly, long or short – any kind of story you like. Ask questions in your mind. What? Why? Where? What if…? What would happen if…?
Now write down your story, or tell it to someone.
When Dad was finished reading, all the other parents and kids had gone home. The three of us were smiling again. Aoife started dancing.
I said, ‘Do the challenge dad!’
Dad closed his eyes and took a deep breath then opened them. His eyes alighted on a street sign. Me and Aoife saw that spark of an idea appear in his eyes and Dad said, ‘What if there was a school warden who –
Then – like last night – a cold wind blew and Dad’s eyes went dark. The spark was gone from his eyes so quickly it was if someone had stolen it.
I said, ‘Try again.’
Aoife roared, ‘Again!’
Dad shook his head. ‘I keep thinking of stories, but…’ He shook his head. ‘Let’s go home.’
At home, Dad left us to watch all the TV we liked. He didn’t check our homework. At dinner Aoife stayed in her seat. She even ate all her dinner for a change, but Dad didn’t notice. He was tense, biting his nails. Every few minutes he rushed up to the office then came back down looking disappointed.
After we were sent to bed without a story again, I slipped down from my bunk bed. In Dad’s office, the computer was off. Everything looked normal, except there was a paperback book on dad’s seat. I recognised the book immediately. Dad said it was his favourite book ever. He’d read it loads of times. There was a piece of paper sticking out of it.
I approached the book, but someone or something gripped my shoulder. My hair nearly stood on end with fear as –
Aoife squealed, ‘Why are you in here?’
I hate her!
‘Go back to bed!’
Aoife grabbed the book off the chair to hit me with it, but the piece of paper fluttered out of it. I picked it up. We both recognised Dad’s writing.
I remembered Nigel Quinlan’s story advice and my mind hurled his story questions at me. What was the Story Thief? Where did the Story Thief come from? Did the Story Thief take my Dad’s stories? What’s going on?!
I grabbed the note and started for the stairs, ‘We need to talk to Dad! We need some answers!’
If you want to go ahead and read Episode Two featuring Sinéad O’Hart click here! but don’t forget…
The Story Thief Challenges is a twelve part series published on the first Monday of each month. Each episode includes writing advice from an Irish children’s fiction author and a Story Challenge activity. To subscribe to The Story Thief Challenges to ensure you don’t miss an episode please click here.
If you would like more information on Nigel Quinlan’s books and how to contact him, including for school and library and other visits click here.
If you’re a teacher / librarian / educator or parent and you would like advice on how use The Story Thief Challenges and this specific blog post with children to promote reading, writing, story telling and creativity please click here
Also if you want to check out the work done by kids on this series and want to get work featured on it then click here.