The Wall that Blinked

A short story written with my son, based on his day at school…

My predator had cyan eyes with purple dots on the irises. Each one shaped like the eye of Horus, they were red rimmed and had a feline black slit of a pupil. These were not the eyes of a creature you would want to meet on a dark night.
I was really proud of them.
They dried over the lunch break. During afternoon class my teacher Miss Bayer said that she was so pleased with our predator artwork that she would put the eyes up on the wall in the classroom.
I wasn’t too sure I liked this. Have you ever walked past a wall of eyes? If you are there with your friends, then it’s possible to think of them like so many miniature stained glass windows. If, like me the following day, you have left your violin in the cloakroom again and have to pass the eyes by yourself on your way to retrieve your instrument, they can be downright creepy.
They’re just paper, tissue, paint and glue, I told myself. I made a pair. I know that. But I still scurried to find my red violin case. I carried it in front of me like a shield as I went to pass them again. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the blink.
I froze. Stupid now I think about it, I should have run. But I didn’t. Down near the bottom of the display, a pair of luminous green eyes the shape of of an infinity symbol had definitely blinked. I waited. I could hear my heart beating in my ears.
Nothing happened. I must have imagined it. I bent to examine the eyes, smiling to myself as I recognised them. My friend Dean had made them, I noticed he had managed to get a splodgy yellow capital D around each of the teardrop-shaped pupils. It was his symbol. He wanted to write it on walls and stuff.  I’d told him that, if he did that, everyone would know he’s done the graffiti and he’d have to clean it off and the police would come to his house. He muttered that everyone knowing the graffiti was his was sort of the point, but I knew that he had thought about it again, and only actually practised it on the side wall of his own house. The yellow seemed to make the green paint glow. I didn’t remember him adding black paper eyelids but when the eyes blinked again, that’s definitely what I saw. I yelped. This time I ran.
I went to bed as normal, but I switched my light back on again when my mum went downstairs. In the dark, I could imagine that there were predator eyes on my bedroom wall too. Weird, glowing eyes, as if a thousand greedy animals were watching me, waiting for the moment that I would drop off so that they could gobble me up. I tossed and turned. I sweated. I drank a cup of water and had to go out to the bathroom. I must have fallen asleep, because I woke when my alarm went off. I was ok for about two seconds, but then I felt like a bubble of sick was rising all acidy in my stomach. I didn’t want to go to school ever again.
Mum had absolutely no truck with this at all, and packed me off to be eaten by the wall monsters.
“What’s up?” asked Dean. “You look poorly.” He had run to catch up with me on the footpath that led to the school gate.
I shrugged and put my hood up on my coat. “Tired.”
“We’re doing about prey today,” he said. “Blinkin’ shame if you had to miss it and go home.”
We hung our bags and coats in the cloakroom, and I nearly walked into Miss Bayer as she stepped out of the stationery supplies cupboard. She was holding a broken piece of wood in her hand. “The whole shelf’s come away from the wall,” she said.
“Don’t look at me!” said Dean.
She twisted her mouth in the way she does when she’s thinking about a tough maths puzzle. “I wasn’t,” she said slowly. It almost sounded like she added “but I am now”, but no actual words came.
We headed to class. I looked away from the wall of eyes. The last thing I needed was my whole class hearing me shriek.
Dean suddenly stopped.
I didn’t even realise until I was a metre or so in front of him. I turned back.
“Did – ?” he said.
“What happened?”I asked.
“Nothing.” He shook his head. He started walking away.
“What happened?” I asked again, bobbing along beside him like a rubber duck in the bath.
“I said nothing.” He didn’t look at the eyes on the wall, and he wouldn’t look at me either.
It was break time before he would admit that something had happened. Even then he pretended like it wasn’t a big deal. “It looked like there was a pair of eyes glowing at me, ok, but it was just the light. I’m not a nutter. I don’t do stupid stuff.”
Dean clearly didn’t want to talk about it, so we played normal games at break and lunch. As home time approached, I started to feel nervous. I didn’t want more of the eyes moving or glowing. I didn’t know what was going on with that wall. All I knew was, I didn’t want to be anywhere near it.
I dashed to be the first to go out to meet my mum on the playground, so of course I forgot my water bottle and had to go back. I stopped just before the place where the eyes hung on the wall. There was a shadow across them and the sparkle of the glitter glue that some of my classmates had used to make their predator eyes looked like malevolent glints in the semi-darkness.
I took a deep breath. I felt like my heart was going to hammer out through my chest. I felt light headed. I didn’t want to be there. I needed to think about something else. Miss Bayer’s words from that afternoon’s class floated through my mind. “Prey has two options for survival. Fight or flight.”
What I was feeling was flight.
When the orange eyes next to Dean’s blinking green ones started to glow, I felt something else. I felt anger.
I stormed to the stationery cupboard and flung the door open.
There was Dean, torch in one hand, my water bottle in the other. He was shining light through the holes in the wall where the shelf had fallen out. They lined up exactly with the orange and green predator masks on the other side of the wall.
“I knew it!” I shouted. “A blinking shame? No one says that!”
Dean looked a bit awkward, but then he grinned.”I got you though, didn’t I? You really thought the eyes were alive.”
I nodded. “You did. But I don’t know why.”
He pulled a face. “There’s just something about walls. I see a wall, I want to decorate it. You had to go and tell me the police would be on me if I drew on walls in public, didn’t you? So I drew on the one at home. And Dad’s grounded me.”
A shape loomed behind me, casting a shadow across Dean’s face. Miss Bayer appeared. “You two. I might have known. Dean – did you pull the shelf out of my cupboard?”
Dean looked a bit scared, but admitted it.
“Great, well, as you like decorating walls so much, you can help fix the shelf back into this one. Tomorrow. Now go on, home. Both of you.”
We hurried out onto the playground to find our parents. As I ran, I glanced back.
I was almost sure that a cyan and purple dotted eye winked at me. But that was impossible.

Haiku Wizard… My Poem published!

Are you a bit of a book fan? Are you randomly on Facebook at teatime one day, scrolling through…

That was me. And I don’t know about you, but when I see “writing competition”, “free” “about your favourite books” and “haiku” all together, I automatically think I Can Do That. And my brain switched to Harry Potter…

Why Harry Potter? Well, my latest writing project is middle grade fiction, and my son’s bedtime story has taken us right through Percy Jackson and the Olympians, all through Harry Potter and back to Rick Riordan’s world, this time with Heroes of Olympus. Harry Potter takes three times as long and includes linguistic fun (look at the character names) as well as great storytelling.

It was wizard fun.

So today my ten minute’s work haikus were published in The Story, Amazon Kindle’s new reading/writing themed magazine published via tumblr.

I am a bit excited- seeing my name there as the reader responsible, with a potentially worldwide readership, and for something fun is fabulous.

No, it’s not an agent, a contract, publication (and international acclaim for) my novels etc. but it shows me that out there, people to whom I am not related believe I can be creative.

So you have to celebrate the small things as well as the big.

Please go and enjoy my haikus here. You can read it without joining Tumblr (at least I could) but just in case, you can also read it below:

Harry goes to school, 
Learns spells, makes friends, finds the stone.
How did he survive?

Kids get petrified, 
Harry talks to snakes, and fights
Heir of Slytherin.

Prisoner on the run,
Time travel saves the day – Oh!
Harry’s Godfather?!

Boy wizard competes
In dangerous magic games
The Dark Lord rises.

Ministry take school,
Order fights the Death Eaters: 
Sirius Black dies!

Who is Half blood prince?
Dumbledore self-sacrifice?
This one makes least sense!

Deathly Hallows Three,
Voldemort or Harry dies
Which one do you think?

Morpurgo, Music and the Mozart Question

IMG_1935How do you explain the holocaust to children? If you are going to try, the good news is you can do it as engagingly and sensitively as Michael Morpurgo does in his current stage show “The Mozart Question”.

In a rare treat, the former children’s laureate was in Ashford, Kent today at Revelation St Mary‘s (the town centre church which is a stunning arts venue in its spare time). Accompanied by Alison Reid, violin soloist Daniel Pioro and the Storyteller Ensemble string quartet, Morpurgo tells his short story with drama and humanity.

The Mozart Question is NOT in the Da Vinci Code mould, using a famous historical name to build an improbable and inexpertly written thriller.
Instead it is the fictional story of Paulo Levi, a fifty year old virtuoso violinist who is interviewed at short notice by a cub reporter who has heard him perform and knows only that she must not ask the Mozart question.
Using well known classical violin music (which was slightly different from the selection featured on the 2012 CD of the show) to tell the tale, with Pioro stepping into the roles of both Paulo and his father.
The music left my 7 year old totally unable to sit still (sorry if you were there and thought he was fidgeting, he finds it easier to listen to music while moving I found out today!) His absolute favourite’s were Monti’s Czardas and Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – super fast violins-  and something he referred to as a Barber’s Shop Quartet. I explained that this last one is actually completely different music, but it’s a good term to use without totally giving away a nice surprise scene.

There were some lovely moments of humour, real poignancy and Morpurgo’s love of both language and music shines despite the potentially difficult material about the role of orchestras in Nazi extermination camps. I managed not to cry. But this was a performance primarily for children, so I asked my son to name his favourite bits:
– “I liked the story. It was really sad and happy at the same time”;
– “the fast music was really good. I played air violin when it came on”;
– “Mummy bought me the book, so I could read along a bit. The pictures in the book helped me listen a bit more”;
– “I was a bit scared about going to meet the author, but he was really nice and shook my hand”;
– “I wasn’t completely sure what The Mozart Question actually was, but I think there were three really… why did that music calm people down when they were going to die? Does that bad thing happening with the music make the music bad to listen to? And was his daddy silly to not want to hear it?” (These three questions emerged over the hour after we saw the show).
Once home, it was also the perfect opportunity to explain about Naziism and what happened to Jewish people, gay people, disabled people and more who didn’t fit in with that world view. He was a bit worried about using the shower tonight, a bit sad, and didn’t think anyone should decide that four million people should be killed. Then he decided to play Star Wars figures. It’ll be interesting to listen in and see if those games change as a result.

As always when taking a child to a performance, you have to be relaxed about how they are. At the beginning, my seven year old said loudly “Which one is he?” I replied that the author was the one in the red shirt. “Oh. He’s really old, isn’t he?” says my son.
He asked repeatedly why one violinist wasn’t playing at first (this became clear five minutes later), and later, during a quiet moment e asked why one spotlight wasn’t on.
But for a 75 minute performance without interval, I was really impressed that he basically listened, even if he squirmed.

At seven, my son reads confidently but has so far only read Morpurgo’s “Kaspar, Prince of Cats”. He was inspired with today’s performance though, so I expect we’ll have the full library soon.
Having bought the book that was performed, we hoped to get it autographed but it turns out Morpurgo is a fellow sufferer of RSI. Instead, he handed out signed book plates and came around chatting to everyone and shaking hands. What a nice man!
I mentioned how much my wriggling child had loved the music and Morpurgo asked if he learned an instrument.
“Not yet.”
“I think you will very soon,” says the author.
When we got home, my son announced he wants to learn the violin at school next year.
And he wants to play the Monti.
That alone was worth the entrance price.

Seaside Poetry

  
A proud Mummy post today. My big kid was set homework this week which should have been right up his street. The “beachcomber” topic that they have been following at school is interesting to him, but he is suffering from end-of-term-itis and really didn’t fancy doing extra poetry on the theme of creatures in rock pools at home.

Once I’d explained that he had to do it and no, I wasn’t going to do it for him, he sat down with me and decided to 1) do the poem on just one rock pool creature and 2) research that creature to get the information to go into the poem.
He also had to make sure there was an adverb, an adjective and a simile…

This is the result – an acrostic poem. Getting there was a bit blood-out-of-stone but worth the effort in the end…

The Beadlet Anemone

Aggressive animal, stings like a bee;

Nobbly blue beads on a blob of orange jelly;

Exciting red tentacles wave slowly to and fro;

Mouth on its bottom; slippy-slidey foot to go.

One hundred babies will come out of it one day;

Nestled in its rock pool, eating its prey.

Enemy anemone, keep away!

 

Creating our own worlds

It’s been ages since I did a writing course. I wasn’t sure anything could top the last one I did – I persuaded my employer to take one Wednesday afternoon a month off to attend a course at the ICA. I really did not think it would happen, but working an extra week of overtime a month was the norm there for all us bright young things, and developing writing skills was considered staff development, so it worked out well as a way for me to be out of the office and still doing something useful as well as enjoyable.

The course was led by creative writing teacher Greg Mosse, husband of author Kate Mosse, and used as a point of reference a book she was writing at that time. It turned out to be Labyrinth, book one of her now famous Languedoc series. It was fascinating to see how the ideas around research, character development and world building that we explored played out in her novel – and how different that book was from the book I thought she was writing.

Ten years on, I have lived abroad, married and had children, but I still haven’t had a novel published. I have one complete one, which I’m starting to talk about with agents and publishers. I have one that’s nearly there, but I couldn’t decide if my lead character deserved a happy ending and it rather paralysed me. I have one written in partnership with a friend that has a climax at the Beijing Olympics, so its time has passed – or it needs a substantial rewrite. There’s a time travel novel aimed at the Percy Jackson/ Harry Potter market. There’s also a promising series, again for younger readers, on which my son is my main consultant…

So to encourage me, and get back on the developing and editing track, I’m doing the FutureLearn online introduction to creative writing course.  I’m relieved and pleased to find that I have kept up the basics – my writer’s notebook is still beside my bed, my phone full of thoughts and observations, my Facebook status a mess of little notes I know I will one day pull out and use again. I can still respond to a writing prompt, pull meaning from a paragraph of someone else’s text, play the word games prescribed as homework.
I may not “need” a creative writing course after completing such a superior one before, but FutureLearn is free, easy to access online and each module is reminding me how to think about what I am trying to convey.

Of course, the best way to write a book is to write it. Style, technique, creating worlds… these things matter, but – as Dorothy Parker is supposed to have said, “writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat”. Or Kingsley Amis: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.” Or Mark Twain. Or Mary Heaton Vorse. If you haven’t written it down, you haven’t written a book. It’s that simple.
So I probably better get on…

Today in a Haiku

(image, bizarrely from California State University Long Beach!)

While English haiku tend to be 10-14 syllables, the classic Japanese haiku is 17 syllables.
On Twitter earlier, I took up @MyWordWizard‘s haiku challenge:
“Got haiku? We’d love to read it. Submit @MyWordWizard at http://tinyurl.com/SubmitPoem #poettalk #poems #poetry #poet #writer #haiku”

I may submit it to their site, but then it occured to me – can you better this?  Can you sum up your day today in a haiku?

Here’s mine:
“Sitting at home with toddler, /toys on floor, food in hair,/
what bliss./And mess”…

Guilty Pleasures – a good read

Part 1 of an occasional series.

This post was inspired by @Dotterel‘s creative writing course.

Just occasionally it is good to go somewhere else, get away from the work pressure, the toddler demands, the housework, the feeling that you ought to be doing something worthwhile with your time.

Reading gives me somewhere else to be, a place to escape to when things are tough, a place to relax in when I need to calm down before bed, a place to find inspiration, to set my mind racing through new ideas, to gain new learning, understanding and new ways of looking at the world, or to make me laugh. 
I can’t imagine not being able to read.  I dread losing my sight and having to rely on audio books where the pictures in my head would always be affected by the voice of the narrator.
Reading is a source of pleasure, a luxury, some time that is just for me in a world that makes so many demands on me.  I’d rather read than watch TV. But often I do both at the same time.

I’m trying to encourage my son to love reading – he already loves Doctor Who and reading is the closest he’ll get to being able to travel to other worlds. It might also buy me some more uninterrupted nights and a bit longer in bed at the weekend, if he can be persuaded to read in his own bed if he wakes up.

But what to read? 
There’s a box on Facebook asking for your favourite books.  Mine lists Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper, Philip Yancey, Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams, political fiction and non-fiction stuff.  I really must update it. 
Now I’d add Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Neil Gaiman, Alistair McGrath, Seth GodinLibby Purves, JK Rowling, Maureen Lipman, social anthropology such Watching the English, Andrew Rawnsley… 
Basically, it’s a bit of a mixture of faith, sci-fi, fantasy, classic crime fiction and politics. 
There’s a bit of chick lit too, but old school.  I hate the way that chick lit is marketed to us with the same pastel coloured books and sexy woman covers, Mills and Boons for the divorce and singleton generation. 

I read pretty widely.  But I like faith, politics, anything that allows escapism, comedy.  I like the fairytale and romance, but I like to feel that I’m learning something too – hence why I prefer the Jilly Cooper “Polo” or “Score!” where I learn the rules of polo and about the opera Don Carlos to Jill Mansell, Cecilia Ahern, Sophie Kinsella etc. etc. 
I don’t like in-your-face social realism but real issues wrapped up inside writing I’m enjoying on another level (the Captain Vimes boots theory of socioeconomic unfairness occurs in the middle of a story about dragons…).
I prefer a happy ending, or at least a bittersweet one, but I hate deus ex machina… I want to have had the chance to work out if it is going to happen the way it turns out.  That’s where Agatha Christie is such an inspriation.  It’s always there, from the start, woven throughout the story, not just dropped in at the end.

I don’t want to feel pressured to take on the author’s worldview, or to feel manipulated by the author – Ian McEwan is a particular bugbear of mine, I hated the end of Atonement, and I resented the way Enduring Love equated religion faith with mental illness. 
I want believable characters, or at least characters that react believably to the situations in which their authors place them.  
I have a Christian worldview and as a result I think I tend to want to offer my characters redemption.  I want someone reading it to think about a situation in a slightly different way as a result, even if it’s only to find a pun dropping into their heads…

In fact, literature is to change the world, in the head of one reader at a time. 
It doesn’t matter whether it is for a mind altering two hours on an emotional journey or setting your mind fizzing with a new way of looking at the world.  Literature takes people on a journey and they come back a slightly different person. 
That’s why so many people want to share their reading with others, from reading out paragraphs to an increasingly annoyed husband, to joining a book group, to writing their very own book blogs (like Norfolk Bookworm).

Getting creative…

It’s been a few years, but I want to start writing again.

I’ve finished the qualification I’ve been doing (Assoc CIPD with merit, thanks) and that gives me time on my hands. Well, ok, time that doesn’t involve potty training, new Ministers or a hoover (those three are almost never at the same time, I should point out).

I’ve had a story or two on the go for a while – the Day of the Lemming, a comedy spy novel I was writing jointly with a friend, and Oren and the Art of Onanism, which I’ve posted over at Authonomy.  The latter had some interesting reviews, and just for a little while it was number 2 in the religious books category.

Writing is part of who I am.  I wouldn’t blog otherwise.
A few years back I did a creative writing course – it was a few hours on a few Friday afternoons at the ICA in London.  The tutor was Greg Mosse and we talked about the book his wife Kate was writing set in Carcassonne.  That book was Labyrinth, the post-Da Vinci Code boom novel which was adopted by Richard and Judy’s book club and sold millions.  I guess it’s unlikely they’re still running those courses now…

Plus I work part-time and have a toddler, so getting the free time to attend is just not easy to come by.  So when I discovered Tim, the excellent @dotterel on Twitter and author of the Bringing Up Charlie blog was running an online creative writing course, I figured this might be a good way of getting back into the habit of fiction writing.  

I’m looking forward to critiquing and getting critiques from my writing partners, and hope that I can be fair and honest and that they will be too.

So let’s get writing!

New Who…

…woohoo!

 (amazing regeneration wallpaper from www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho)

Yes, pleased to report that I enjoyed the Eleventh doctor’s first outing “the Eleventh hour” (available on BBC iPlayer here).

Thanks to my son’s perhaps unsuitable addition to sci-fi TV programmes (the Sarah Jane Adventures, MI High etc.) I’ve had the opportunity recently to rewatch the Christopher Eccleston era Doctor Who episodes in the last couple of weeks (the less scary ones at least).  I remember now how I feared that the actor that played the singing policeman from Blackpool and the young Casanova couldn’t surely be a better Doctor than the one-that-looks-a-bit-like-my-husband?  But after the slightly disappointing “Christmas Invasion” (worst line?  “This new hand?  It’s a fightin’ hand!” in a cod Wild West accent), David Tennant became the best Doctor Who that I can remember, and I remember back to Tom Baker… well, the repeats at least.

I was one of the five people that watched and enjoyed Party Animals (the series which made Matt Smith’s name 🙂 ), so I was actually quite pleased when he was cast, and didn’t respond “Doctor Who?” (hohoho).  Though I have to admit I was bothered about being older than the Doctor for the first time.  The friendship with the companions is important and I was a bit afraid that a younger Doctor meant more romance stuff and less exciting adventures.  The wedding dress (which I guessed was coming) at the end of the episode suggests that Stephen Moffat might have thought about this too… 

I was genuinely enthusiastic about Stephen Moffat taking over at Doctor Who and I’m glad to say, so far it’s lived up to my expectations. 

There are reviews galore online and I’d rather you watched it and formed your own views. But some highspeed random thoughts:
– new titles – great graphics, not so sure about the theme remix;
– liked the kid with the talking bedroom wall, hated the praying to Santa business (yes, we know the writers are atheists, but this felt petty);
– liked the not-quite-done-yet Doctor and the revamped tardis;
– liked the “corner of your eye” business and the camera technique of  “what did I see?”;
– liked the references to earlier themes and incarnations: the William Hartnell library card, the stealing clothes from the hospital (Paul McGann does that!), the inability to know when exactly he’s returning to (like the Girl in the Fireplace);
– loved the “village” atmosphere of Leadworth where everyone knows Amy…

The monsters were scary enough to mean that my son certainly won’t be seeing it for a few years (prisoner zero and the prison guard ships i can’t remember the name of), and the Doctor as the protector of earth theme was pleasingly in place. 
The dialogue is quick-fire and less “Coupling” than the Blink episode from series 3 (where both heroine Sally Sparrow and even Martha Jones sounded suspiciously like Sally Harper at times), and the oneliners are thick and fast. 

Essentially, >>jealous<< that I’m not writing it.  Though that means I get to watch it and get the enjoyment from that. Can you see the grin from here?

(And – given the random groups of people that read my blog – having read two thirds of the Ben Cook/ Russell T Davis email correspondence that forms “Doctor Who: the Writer’s Tale” and seeing the struggle going into Torchwood: Children of Earth, if series 4 gets the go ahead, email me via the contact sheet if you need a new writer…)

Very much looking forward to next week!