I’m not a teacher. I’ve spent my career working as a copywriter in advertising. It’s my job to solve clients’ problems through strategic lateral thinking.

When I became a published author the doors to schools began to open. I was expected to entertain and educate the toughest clients I’ve ever faced: children.

How could I utilise my skills in a way that would be useful to them?

During one school visit, I asked a class to put their hands up if they found writing stories difficult. They were taken aback when I raised my hand in the air.

It had never occurred to them that authors might find it hard too. I left determined to come up with a solution to make writing stories easier, while nurturing imaginations at the same time.

I don’t focus on grammar, spelling or punctuation. I can’t recall many instances when knowing exactly where to place a semicolon might save your life.

But if you can use your imagination to think your way out of a tricky situation, it could mean you live to see another day.

OK. That’s a touch dramatic, but being able to problem solve effectively not only makes our everyday lives easier, it’s a transferable skill that can be applied to a wide range of different jobs and industries.

It’s something that will always be in demand. Our imaginations are like muscles. If we don’t use them, we lose them.

I went on to develop a writer’s toolkit for children. It takes all the elements needed to make a story engaging and breaks them down into bite-sized chunks.

Add in a dash of fun and it can help children to learn some under-the-radar writing techniques. Here are a few examples of the exercises I do in my residencies, events and workshops for you to try in the classroom.

Cut to the chase

Children’s authors only have a matter of seconds to grab a young reader’s attention. At the beginning of my next book, The Night My Dream Came Alive, there’s a chase scene, so we’re right in the thick of the action from the get-go.

All the greatest children’s books start with a brilliant first sentence to hook the reader in. Show children some of the best opening lines and discuss what makes them intriguing, then ask the class to write one sentence to grab a reader’s attention.

It’s a simple exercise that can get every story off to a great start.

Make a map

Drawing a map is fantastic for those who find working out plots challenging. First, brainstorm a list of features that could go on a map and make a hero’s journey difficult.

Next, give them a twist, like a tornado that can shrink you to the size of a pea or a swamp that curses you if your foot touches water.

Now ask everyone to think of a quest. It could be saving a magical creature or finding the antidote to a poisonous potion.

Finally, ask the class to draw their maps, working out the route their character will take, the three difficulties they’ll face and how they’ll overcome them to succeed in their quest.

Name generator

I love showing children how to create dynamic characters. Make a character name generator by cutting up lots of different words and putting them in a bag.

Ask pupils to pick out two words each and use them to come up with a name.

Next, pose a few questions to children, designed to help them make their characters less wooden, such as ‘What are they good and bad at?’ and ‘What are they scared of?’

A character facing their fears in a story creates brilliant drama. Ask children to hot seat their character. This is a technique used by some writers so they can get to know their characters better.

Ask one pupil to sit up front with their character in mind while the rest of the class asks questions about them. Memorable characters often emerge from this exercise.

Worst case scenario

It’s our job as authors to make life difficult for our characters. The more we can throw at them, the more readers will root for them.

In my book, the protagonist mustn’t have a dream because if she does, what she dreams of will come alive.

A trick used by writers to keep a story gripping is to ask these two questions:

  • What is the very worst that could happen to my character in this situation?
  • How do I get them out of it?

It’s a simple way to keep readers on the edge of their seats. Choose a scenario with your class, such as a boy being locked out of his house.

Together, brainstorm what the worst case scenario for him would be as he attempts to get inside his home, then resolve it for the character. For example:

  • He gets stuck trying to climb the fence into his back garden
  • He manages to free himself but is chased by the neighbour’s dog
  • He escapes by climbing a tree, except the branch snaps

Keep on asking the two questions until there are enough ideas for a complete story, then work together to figure out the perfect ending.

Mix it up

I’m all for children reading what they enjoy, but if they stick with the same author or type of book, it can become like junk food for the mind.

When I’m writer-in-residence at a school, I begin every session reading from a different book, so I can cover as many genres as possible.

I’ve also featured political speeches by Greta Thunberg, a stinky description of 18th century Paris by Patrick Susskind in Perfume, and articles from New Scientist, which can generate ideas for interesting sci-fi stories.

All this has proved successful at tempting reluctant readers into trying something new.

Let’s not forget – books are rocket fuel for the imagination, and the imagination is rocket fuel for life.

Find Juliette on Twitter at @jools_forrest.