• 15 July 2010
    This is a piece I wrote for English Teaching Online in 2006.

    In school, I wrote a bloodthirsty, futuristic story for a student teacher, thinking, 'She’ll be young and hip enough to dig it.' She wasn’t, and I almost got expelled.

    I’ve had more than a few letters from children and parents complaining about teachers who don’t understand them, who criticise them if they choose to write horror stories, who demand blood-free, family-friendly tales.

    In my books, I’ve buried a child alive … killed off dozens of characters … cannibals have cavorted merrily … in Lord Loss a boy witnessed a demon using his split-in-two sister as a hand-puppet. Nice!

    Oddly, I don’t get many complaints about my books, because as bloody as they are, most adults note the moral resonances. I write about kids who take responsibility, who put their lives on the line for family and friends, who learn the meaning of duty, courage, self-reliance. Horror is the web I weave to capture the attention of my teen readers. But they learn about much more than the workings of vampires and demons. Sure, I like bloody, action-packed fight scenes, but I’m more interested in exploring emotions and the problems my characters face, using fantasy to mirror and probe the more complex real world. Teachers and librarians (well, most of them!) understand this and cut me some slack.

    But as a teenager, I wasn’t concerned with exploring moral grey areas or in using horror and fantasy to take my readers on a voyage of self-discovery. Hell, I wasn’t able to. Writers develop over time, with age and experience. At thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, I knew I wanted to be a writer. That’s when I began working hard, writing lots of short stories in my spare time, making my first stab at novels. I yearned to make an impression, create a story that readers would respond to, that would excite and thrill all who passed within its reach.

    Lacking the ability to craft such stories, I went for full-on gore and violence instead. I travelled down many vile, vicious paths with my imagination, coming up with the sorts of stories that never see the light of day, being far better suited to as dark a setting as possible! But I learnt to write good stories by churning out these crimson shams. Where writing is concerned, practice makes perfect. The advice I give young, would-be writers – the only advice I think they ever really need – is, 'The more you write, the better you get.'

    Naturally, having been stung by showing one of my more colourful stories to a wrathful teacher, I kept these juicy gems to myself. I withdrew into my own world of fiction, a secretive, forbidden world. I couldn’t let anyone into it because I feared the repercussions. My late teens were a very negative time, largely because I was exploring a dark landscape, and had undertaken the task by myself, with no one to guide or encourage me.

    If I’d had a teacher I felt free to show my work to, and discuss it with, maybe I’d have come through the darkness earlier and easier than I did. I needed someone to tell me less is more, that I didn’t have to go into disgusting details to impress. Someone who wouldn’t criticise me for going off in the directions I took, but who would explore them with me, explain why they weren’t worth taking, and lead me back to the road I eventually, luckily found by myself.

    I think most teenagers have a terrible sense of being alone, especially if they’re of a creative bent and that creativity leads them to places that are frowned upon by the adults they interact with on a daily basis. Sure, it’s fun to be a rebel — but it can be scary, isolating and depressing too.

    We don’t live in an ideal world. I know teaching’s a hard job, that it’s easier to mark essays on conventional subjects than give a free rein to surly teenagers who want to write about zombies chowing down on fresh brains. But creativity isn’t a smooth ride. Sometimes it demands detours down grimy alleys of the mind, places no adult might want to visit, but which developing teens feel drawn to. As a teacher, you can choose to block such trends in your classroom and demand your students tread the straight and narrow line, forcing them to give up on writing or labour on by themselves, alone in the dark.

    Or you can encourage imagination wherever you find it, explore the quirkier corners of writing with those who truly do 'think outside the box', and try to help even the most creatively wayward students find their true direction. If you do, you might help the next Poe, Mary Shelley or Stephen King to blossom.

    Of course, you might inadvertently create the next Charles Manson too — but, hey, them’s the breaks!
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