Going fishing… Hooking my readers!

I’ve always been a story teller, first to myself, then to my sister, then to others… I wrote stories as soon as I could write, and poems, and drew pictures to illustrate them… but I’m not an artist, it has always been words, words, words.

Needing a day job I became an English  teacher and I taught through stories and poems, writing my own for my students when there was nothing specific enough for them. My first longer tales for students with comprehension and creative writing exercises were “The Sports Day Fiasco,” and the “Valuables Box Job.” I was teaching English to non native speakers, young people in their teens from Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Vietnam and a variety of other countries. My main characters were young people of a similar age, from similar backgrounds… I think the hero was a lad called Arshad… he was involved in a bank raid, and that plot device is echoed in my next novel to be published THE STALKING OF ROSA CZEKOV!

I began to teach in PRUs, Pupil Referral Units for young poeple who for various reasons were not succeeding in state schools; this may be through violence, truancy, drug-taking, alcohol and other substance abuse,school phobia… anything which stopped them achieving all they were capable of. Many came from disfunctional families and were accustomed to violence and abuse in their lives. Most of them were of average or above average intelligence, some were extremely able and in other circumstances would have been looking ahead to further education and university… but for whatever reason they were with us. They were aged 15-16 years and in their last statutory school year.

These students were great, challenging certainly but such personalities! I loved teaching them, their potential was awesome if only they could realise it themselves! Most of them were reluctant readers, not because they couldn’t but because they wouldn’t read. Convinced of their abilities I pushed them towards doing public exams, GCSE English and as part of the course they had to read poetry, Shakespeare and a novel…  To get them to read.. how to get them to read… They all could read and read fluently, but none of them wanted to.

I wrote a comprehension exercise for them. It was about a lad called Blue who was conned out of some money by a man he had done some work for, went home to find the trailer he lived in had been trashed and his dad was missing. Some angry men were approaching the trailer with baseball bats, the boy grabbed an envelope he had hidden and fled.

“What was in the envelope?” my students demanded.

“No, idea… now let’s look at this comprehension…”

“But  what was in the envelope?”

I prevaricated and continued with the lesson. The following week, time for comprehension and it was another passage about Blue going to his girl-friend’s house and after being insulted by her mother threw a brick through their window and fled. He met up with a weedy little kid called Des who told him three men in black were going round the area asking for Blue.

“Who are the three men? What are they after? Do they want the envelope?” my students asked.

“No idea… now this week we’re going to be thinking about punctuation…”

“But who are the men?”

“Haven’t a clue… Now, speech marks, when do we use them?”

By this time they had realised it was a continuous story they were reading, but they were hooked, they wanted to keep reading.

There were ten or eleven chapters altogether and by the end we were reading a couple of chapters at a time, following Blue’s adventures and discussing his character and those of the others in the story, plot development, use of language, new vocabulary… and doing creative writing based on what they had read as well as the grammar and punctuation.

Blue’s story was finished, but reading hadn’t. The next story featured a girl as the main character and it opened with her staring in horror at her English teacher lying on the floor of the classroom, shot through the hand and with two broken legs.

The cliff-hanger ending of the first chapter hooked the students and over the next few weeks we followed Jo-Jo’s adventures as she ran away from her home in her parent’s pub after an arson attack, hid-out in an old boat house with an illegal immigrant lad Tofuzul, who was also on the run. After escaping from a police station where she realised the baddy was a policeman, she and Tofuzal ended up in the hospital where her teacher lay unconscious… only he could tell her the truth and keep her safe.

Again the students were hooked; I kept them reading, I kept them intrigued and I got them through their exams!

My final story which was written for a different purpose was THE STORY OF RUFUS REDMAYNE. As well as telling the story of Rufus and his adventures in Camel Wood, it was an exercise in writing for different purposes and different audiences. The first chapter is a straightforward narrative written as a story for young teens; the second in the style of fantasy story, with hints of were-wolves and strange creatures lurking in the old forest. The third chapter is written as a fairy tale with archeic language and the sort of repeated phrases there might be in what was orignally an oral tale.

The third chapter is a newspaper report and subsequent chapters are written as dialogues, scenes from plays, TV news reports, chapters from a local history book, diaries …  And the narrator varies, Rufus, the forester Jack Green, me as the author… With all this contrivance the story still had to carry the reader on, still had to have the cliff hanging end of chapter, still had to engage and intrigue the readers, and carry them through not just to the dénouement but to the very last words as spoken by old Ruby Redmayne, Rufus’s grandma.

The novels I am writing and publishing now may not be exercises in punctuation, grammar, creative writing and improving reading… but I still need to be aware of my audience, to engage my readers and keep them  reading. They may not tell me to f*** off if they don’t like what I write, they may not throw things at me – except metaphorically – but I still need them to follow me through my narrative… once they have taken the bait I need to keep them hooked until I have landed them safely at the end of my story!


  1. Amanda Dollak

    Ok, now I’m intrigued! I want to know what happens to Blue. 🙂 Thanks for sharing such a wonderful post. I, too, have been creating stories since I was young. In fact, I remember creating my own stories from the illustrations in books to entertain myself before I could read. There’s just something magical and fun about reading and creating stories . . . I still can’t get enough, and I hope I never will!


  2. Carl D'Agostino

    Great teaching technique. I did 33 years high school history Miami Dade.Except for college bound my 11th graders were 2-5 years below reading level. Last 10 years I stopped history teaching and became more of a reading and writing teacher. Learning any history was a mere by-product. One writing prompt I used was to put a bizarre pic from a mag on the board and they were to write just 3 paragraphs: What’s going on? How did it get this way ? and How will it end? Then as they were engaged in other stuff I called them up one at a time to edit word by word. A big problem with English majors today is that they don’t know anything about the curriculum. World fiction in 10th, Am lit in 11th and Eng lit in 12th. All they have taken is women’s lit, African lit, minority issues stuff and don’t know a thing about grammar.


    1. Lois

      It sounds as if the American system is going through the same doldrums as English education. At least teaching in a PRU gave me a certain autonomy and i chose exam syllabi which gave flexibility… but it is so depressing how ignorant young people are because of the way they have been taught… even more depressing is how ignorant some young teachers are!! That makes me sound very old!!!


  3. Hillary Shemin

    What fortunate young people to have you as their teacher! Loved your creativity with your story of Blue. Your blog here is quite impressive and definitely engaging. I will be back again! ~Hillary


    1. Lois

      Thank you Hilary! I was lucky to teach those kids – in that one year in the unit some of them really turned their lives round, got some exam passes and went on to further education or work – I had such a lot of funny moments too! We were a small team and brilliant colleagues. I was there ten years and it was great!


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