Breathe Life into it - dream your story alive

When I was a child people used to say to me, ‘For goodness sake use your imagination,’ and in the next breath they’d yell, ‘Oy you! Stop daydreaming!’

Although I didn’t do much writing when I was young, I spent several hours a day practising being a writer – I just didn’t realise that was what I was doing.

When I wasn’t reading, I was telling myself stories.

Of course, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this because everyone does it. Every single person in the world makes up stories.

Now I know you’re thinking: ‘Who is this crazy woman? What does she mean everyone makes up stories? I don’t make up stories. except when I have to write one for my teacher.’ But you do. You tell yourself stories all the time. I’m talking about daydreams. And one of the things I want to prove to you is, just like everyone else in the world, you’re an airy fairy daydreamer.

And that can be very useful if you want to be a writer.

Now I often visit schools and talk to children about their daydreams. So I know what you imagine in your head is a bit private – lots of people don’t want to talk about it in case someone laughs at them. But I’m used to people laughing at me, so I’ll start us off and tell you one of my daydreams.

One thing I used to dream about when I was young was having a dog. I used to lie in my bed at night and imagine how wonderful it would be – how my life would be utterly transformed – if only my mean and stingy parents would let me have a dog.

In fact this was a daydream that got a bit out of hand. I tried to make it real. I stole two dogs – one wasn’t enough! I lured them to my house with chocolate biscuits and I locked them in the garage. I fed them with bacon out the fridge. I groomed them with my Dad’s clothes brush. I was in heaven, until the dogs began to fight and their owners tracked them down and then of course I was in deep trouble.

Anyway, my parents were so shocked by the dognapping incident that they caved in and bought me a puppy. And of course, since my daydream of owning a dog had come true, there wasn’t much point dreaming it anymore, so I immediately began to dream about owning a horse…

You see, when you really want something, you don’t just think, ‘I want an alligator.’

You think, ‘Where will I keep it?’ – ‘In the bath.’ – ‘What will I call it?’ – ‘I’ll call it Cuddles’ – ‘But oh dear, it’s going to grow quite big. What on earth will I feed it?’ – ‘I’ll feed it my little sister.’

You begin to paint a picture, you make up a story about the thing you want. That’s what daydreaming is. It’s about coming up with answers to a series of questions… What if? What then? What next?

Daydreams about getting to keep a pet are really common, but there are lots of other types of daydream. For example, I bet some of you play football – and when you’re playing football I bet you think: “What if a talent scout is watching me?” And you tell yourself a wonderful story about how the talent scout realises you’re such a fantastic player that even though you’re only nine years old he signs you up to play for your favourite team.

Then of course there’s the daydream about being in a band and starring on Top of the Pops, not to mention daydreams about having magical powers, like being able to make yourself invisible. I used to daydream about flying. Not in an aeroplane. Not in a helicopter. Just flapping my arms and flying like a bird across the sky. Sad but true.

And let’s not forget the daydream that millions of people in this country have every week. It’s a daydream that starts every Saturday morning, when they go out and buy themselves a lottery ticket. And it doesn’t matter what they do for the rest of the day – they can be climbing a mountain or shopping in QuickSave, but at the back of their minds they’ll be telling themselves a story….

“This is what it will be like when I win the Jackpot. This is the sort of house I’ll buy. This is where I’m going to go on holiday.”

They picture the whole thing in their heads, right down to the presents they’ll buy for their great auntie. It’s like a big elaborate bubble that goes POP at 8 o’clock every Saturday night. Because you never win. But week after week, people daydream about winning the lottery.

Here’s another example of the sort of strange things people daydream about to pass the time. When I was young we used to live in England and two or three times a year we’d drive up to Scotland to see my Granny and my other relatives. I’d sit in the back of the car, cheek pressed against the window, head vibrating, gazing out… And I’d see myself, beside the motorway, riding on a super-champion-showjumping-racehorse. That horse would gallop along, with me on its back, leaping over hedges and fences and walls and 20-story tower blocks all the way down the motorway to Scotland. It used to keep me entertained for hours.

Now a few years ago I was on a car journey and I turned round and saw my daughter, cheek pressed against the window, head vibrating, gazing out…

So I said, ‘Are you imagining that you’re riding a horse?’ And she said, ‘Horse? Horse! What d’you mean horse? I’m Sonic the Hedgehog, and I’m zooming along beside the road, jumping over obstacles and gobbling up points.’

When I was young I could never have imagined being a character in a computer game, because they didn’t have computer games way back then. But it’s obviously something children daydream about now.

And of course, it’s not just nice, pleasant, sweet ‘n’ cosy stories that you tell yourself. What about the hammer-horror stories? Like when you’re lying in bed at night and you suddenly realise, “There’s a mad axe murderer under my bed!” or “Is that a vampire tip-tapping at the window?” And immediately you’re in a hysterical sweat because your imagination’s working overtime telling you things you’d rather not know.

OK, I hope I’ve managed to convince you that you use your imagination all the time. It’s a very big part of your life.

Now, when I was young, I was confused. People used to talk about ‘imagination’ and I didn’t think I had one…

It was like some sort of mysterious muscle in my body but I didn’t know where it was or how to use it. I didn’t realise that I used my imagination every time I told myself a story about owning a puppy, or flying over the rooftops, or galloping to Scotland on a horse.

I didn’t realise daydreams and imagination were the same thing. You might think I was stupid, but it’s not surprising because when I was a child people used to say to me, ‘For goodness sake use your imagination,’ and in the next breath they’d yell, ‘Oy you! Stop daydreaming!’

No wonder I was confused. No wonder I never used my imagination to help me write stories. Now though, I’m older and wiser. I realise that daydreaming and imagination are the same thing and I use daydreaming to help me write.

In other words, I’m not ashamed to sit doing absolutely nothing… because writing doesn’t just happen when you’re moving a pen across a piece of paper or tapping away at a computer keyboard. It happens in your head. I look inside myself to see and hear and live what happens to my characters in exactly the same way as I look inside myself to see and hear and live what it’s going to be like when I win the lottery.

And that’s the very first thing you have to do as a writer. You have to try out a story one way in your head, and if it doesn’t work, try it out another way.

You have to daydream your story alive.