Saturday, 29 March 2014

One Picture, Three Stories

For me this little brooch manges to convey the  beauty and elegance that dance can encompass. I took this photo of it to try and capture the magical nature of it in the hope that it would inspire a short story.

As part of the one picture, three stories link up with Jane Heinrichs, I'd like to share some of the thoughts, stories and memories that this picture evokes in me.

1. Oh how I wanted to be a ballerina! To have grace and elegance, to twirl and leap as though I was made of dandelion down... alas for me I am flatfooted, clumsy, have no sense of timing and have all the grace, poise and balance of a lumbering anteater. Any time that I have ever performed anything resembling a dance on stage I have come in at the wrong time, or turned the wrong way, or missed my entrance completely. As you can imagine, a career in dance was never on the cards. But how my heart soars when I watch anyone else more blessed with talent, skill, and the ability to stand right up on tippy-toe without looking like a gangling idiot.

2. I found this brooch on  the pavement lost, abandoned, covered in mud and broken. It makes me wonder who owned it, where they got it from. Was it a gift? A token of love, of faith, of hope? Was it a promise? How did it get lost? Is it missed? Who could not miss such an elegant, pretty treasure? Stories can be found anywhere and attached to anything. I like to think of this little dancer as a talisman, a good luck charm for someone embarking on their life of dancing. I hope though that they are not suffering for having lost it, but rather that they no longer needed it and it has been passed on to inspire someone new (i.e. me!)

3. The Steadfast Tin Soldier is my favourite Hans Christian Anderson story. Although this dancer is made of plastic and not paper, I imagine her as the dancer in the story and can understand the love she inspired in the  Tin Soldier. If you're not familiar with the fairytale, you can read it here.

I haven't written the dancer her own story yet but if I do, I'll share it with you!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Weekly Wishes #2

Ok, so it's been an extended week, but here's how my list of wishes looks now:

 1. Use my spare time to do something related to writing be it a feature proposal, competition entry, research.  Sorting out my shelving unit and filing systems I encountered numerous story starts and ideas. One has been growing and growing. I re-read my current book and the next part of the chapter is bubbling away in the back of the mind. So although I haven't actually WRITTEN anything, I have most certainly turned my attention to writing.
2. Write the next chapter of my book (or at least start on it) This is rolling over to the coming week.
3. Sort out the loose filing on my desk. Done!
4. Send back the pension information form sitting on my desk. - It's in the envelope to be posted.
5. Write a blog post about my word of the year. Online!

So for the next week I'm just making a very focused wish list:

  • book
  • feature ideas for submission
That's it, short, simple but very very important! 

One of the nice things about this link up is that you visit other people's blogs and offer them encouragement and motivation on their goals. Apart from this being a nice thing to do, it also means that you come across some truly interesting, creative and inspiring people, like Dija.

If you want to join in with the Weekly Wishes link up just click the button below:

The Nectar Collective
Good Luck!

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Never Give In, Never Give Up: REACH!

Every year my friend makes a scrap book page for her word of the year and it's something that I've started to do too. A word of the year is sort of like a mantra for that year. Last year my word was FEARLESS and I think I lived up to it by chucking in my job and branching out on something completely new. That actually didn't work out as well as I had hoped, but the sentiment was there: Try. DO.

Last year my being fearless did open new doors for me too. It led to my features being published in the SCBWI online magazine Words and Pics (Happy Birthday by the way Words and Pics), it led to me being part of some fantastic writing workshops with the Golden Egg Academy led by the inspirational Imogen Cooper and it led me to start writing again.

This year I didn't want to stray too far from the idea of being fearless, but I have to admit that the whole job situation not quite working out did leave me quite bruised. I wanted a word that would express a desire to remain positive, to not give up, but that wasn't quite so 'in your face'. I chose:


Here's my scrap book page for it. The quality of the picture is not very good because I am camera-less at the moment and having to borrow my husband's i-phone.

The journalling on the page reads:
Never give in, never give up. 
2014 is the year to keep trying, to keep reaching for my goals. 
Flapping your wings is the first sign of life!

The last sentence links in with the Snow Bird image on the top right hand corner which is a page out of a book. It says:

'Look!' said Jim, 'he's opening and shutting his wings! He's come alive!'

For me this is a reminder that although it can seem easier to just pass through life without taking risks and making mistakes, to really live and and make the most of your life you have to take action - you can't fly if you haven't stretched your wings. So that's what this year is all about. Moving forward, making progress, reaching for all the things that are important to me with hope in my heart and the sky as my limit.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Spy Game

Amber felt stones and flint digging through her jeans and into her knees.
Her hair was slick with sweat; she could smell the rancid scent of her body beneath her clothes. She trembled; her head a fog of disjointed memories. Her vision was blurred. Figures loomed around her. Voices blared through bad static.
Where was she? How had this happened? She could taste blood in her mouth, her hands were numb from the plastic bindings that tied them. She tried to remember where this had all begun... it had started with icecream... and something... something...
She had been scared.
But even that feeling was so buried beneath weariness and pain that it no longer seemed to matter.
In the distance she heard a jumble of click-clack noises. Her heart sped up, and she groped her mind for clarity.
A cacophony of shots.
Her shoulder exploded with white heat. Her body jerked back. Warmth spread through her and she welcomed it.
She felt herself hit the ground in a distracted way. The solidness beneath her head was comforting. She could fall no further.
There was a dizzying brightness above her. The warmth was leaving. Seeping out onto the gravel. She would have smiled, but her mouth could no longer do that. So she closed her eyes and drew in the blackness and was thankful for peace.

            It had started with icecream. Josie sitting on the wall outside the cafe kicking her heels against the peeling paintwork. She was wearing a dark hoody, combat trousers, and grey plimsolls. Her bronze hair was pulled back into a high ponytail, strands straggling down her face like snakes. Her lipstick was smeared; a plummy streak across her cheek mingled with chocolate sauce.
            ‘Why do we always meet here?’ she grumbled. ‘We’re too old to be seen hanging out outside the icecream shop.’
            ‘You don’t seem to mind that much,’ Amber muttered. She handed Josie a napkin. ‘You eat like a baby.’
            Josie scowled at her as she took the cloth. ‘I’m trying to blend in,’ she said, ‘we’d look even more stupid if we just sat here not eating icecream.’
            Amber said nothing. She dug her hands into her pockets and scanned the street. A few government officials stalked the pavements, their rifles slung over their shoulders, but mostly it was empty. Shops were boarded up, old posters and fliers fluttering in the slight breeze that carried in from the slate coloured sea. Amber felt the hem of her pleated skirt lifting slightly and she flattened it back down over the jeans.
            The iceceam shop was the only place still open. Dusk was closing in and there were a few kids loitering in the neon lit cafe. She glanced back at Josie who was biting her nails and looking grumpy. The napkin was on the ground beneath her feet, balled up and scratching along the pavement with the breeze.
            ‘He’s not coming,’ Amber said, ‘again.’
            Josie rolled her eyes and jumped down from the wall.
            ‘Of course not,’ she said, keeping her voice low, ‘did you really expect him? It’s been days since he last made contact. He’s been caught.’
            Amber felt a lump wedge itself in her throat. She swallowed it down and swiped at her fringe.
            ‘He said he’d always come,’ she whispered.
            Josie took her arm and began tugging her away, leading her down the high street past the guards. She was chattering, her voice high and girly. Talking about boys, about clothes, about make up.
            They turned off into a smaller alley, alone.
            ‘He can’t,’ Josie said, mid sentence, dropping her voice, ‘not if they’ve got him. You know he can’t. He’ll hardly have a choice, will he? They won’t be offering him time out or breaks.’
            Amber pulled Josie’s arm tighter to herself. Please, please don’t let him be caught. Not that. Not that.
            ‘And you know what?’ Josie halted them at the exit to the alley, ‘if he’s caught they’ll be after us next. It won’t take them long to get information out of him. Three days already. Think about it. Three days.’
            They stared at each other for a moment. Josie’s eyes were blanked by the glaring brightness of the streetlight as it flickered on. A guard paused at the entrance to the alley and turned to look at them.
            Josie plastered a wide smile onto her face and pulled Amber out into the open.
            ‘So I said, what’s the point in buying go-go skirts at this time of year, it’s bloody freezing, but she said, look at Amber, she just wears them over jeans...’
            The guard stepped out of their way as they passed, but his gaze lingered on them. Amber heard his footsteps echoing up the street behind him. A gust of wind lifted the hem of her skirt again, she held it down with her free hand.
The footsteps behind them paused for a moment, and then they started again. More purposeful, quicker, coming closer.
Josie kept up her relentless chatter until Amber’s head swam. She could feel the tension running through Josie’s arms, heard the strain in her voice as she struggled to keep her voice light and carefree. Amber risked a glance behind, but Josie pulled her on.
            ‘Girls,’ the guard’s voice was young. It didn’t have the heaviness of authority behind it, but it was enough to make them both flinch. Josie swore under her breath. ‘Turn around.’
            They glanced at each other. For a split second the crazy idea of running entered Amber’s mind, but it disappeared again almost at once. That was suicide. Josie took a deep breath and turned round.
            ‘Yes?’ she asked pleasantly.
            The guard struck her, sending her staggering back, releasing Amber as she did so. Amber let out a cry of shock and moved towards her but the guard shook his head, hefting the rifle slightly. Amber stepped back, stared at her scuffed trainers.
            ‘Recognise this?’ the guard asked.
            Amber lifted her gaze a little. He held out his hand and uncurled his fingers to reveal a small golden badge resting on his palm.
Amber felt her blood turn cold. She stared at the badge. Stared and stared. Her hand strayed down to the hem of her skirt. She wore it pinned to the inside.
 It was no longer there.
No, because it was in the palm of the guard who stood in front of her.
She turned wordlessly to Josie whose face was pale apart from the red smack mark.
            The guard moved closer.
            ‘Recognise it?’ he repeated, his voice lined with fury.
            Josie found her voice.
            ‘We’re for it now,’ she whispered at Amber. ‘We’re going to have to kill him.’

Monday, 17 March 2014

The doll

Another story start that I've had in my head for a while but haven't been able to take any further. I'm not entirely sure who these characters are yet or what's about to happen. I hope I'll find out one day.

The doll sleeps beside me now, I thought you’d like to know that. I thought you’d like to know that I still have her. I still look after her, just as I promised you I would, just as you promised her you would.
Her hair has grown straggly and her cheeks are smudged bare of the pink bloom they used to have. But to me she is beautiful.
Mum thinks I’ve gone simple, sleeping with a doll. I wasn’t even that into dolls when I was younger. But I don’t  mind. After all we went through it seems silly to care about whether people think you’re being babyish. I’ll take this doll everywhere. Maybe one day my kids will play with her, and then their kids. Or maybe we’ll just grow old together and she’ll be buried beside me.
Sometimes when I’m sitting in class and there’s that bored silence because we’re supposed to be reading something, but no one is, not really, instead their secretly tapping out text messages to each other, or doodling on their pencil cases, or picking their spots. That’s when I think of you the most. I sit there and remember.

I remember the rain. It was streaming down the street, turning the gutters into rivers and I was hanging about outside MacDonalds waiting for Sarah, and then you entered my life and turned it upside down.
This is how I saw you:
A skinny girl with lank brown hair and eyes like saucers. You were wearing a red dress. Deep crimson in fact. It was like a ball gown and it went down to your feet in ruffles. You were standing in the rain holding a doll and you were looking right at me. You had eyes that seemed too large and I couldn’t look away.
This is how you saw me:
A girl with dirty trainers and cheap clothes with her hair pulled too tight. A girl with desperation written all over her.
You stepped up to me. Your hair was plastered over your heart shaped face. You held out the doll and I said:
‘You have got to be kidding me. Are you nuts?’
And you smiled. Your lips twisted into this weird smile that was almost like crying and you reached out a hand towards me and your fingers had a strange paleness. Your hand slipped over my arm and I felt my mouth widen to holler at you, felt my anger rise up at you, but no words came out because we were gone.
The street was still there. MacDonalds was still there. Sarah was hurrying around the corner, her mobile glued to her ear, but we were gone.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Weekly wishes

So as I was entering Jane Heinrichs give away and exploring the blogs involved in it I came across a link-up called Weekly Wishes - a community of goal setters:

The Nectar Collective

I followed the button above which took me to this post: thewellnessdoer and then this post Challenge Accepted. The idea of the community of goal setters really appealed to me because my friends and I hold 'Positive Planning' sessions (to read more about what this means, visit my friend's excellent post all about them: Jennifer Grace Creates. Anyway, the idea of weekly wishes fits perfectly into this idea of positive planning - although we tend to make targets for a month rather than a week. However, as we are in the middle of March, I'm going to do a few weekly wishes and see how that gets me through, ready for April and a load of monthly wishes!

So, my weekly wishes for this week:

1. Use my spare time to do something related to writing - be it a feature proposal, competition entry, research...
2. Write the next chapter of my book (or at least start on it)
3. Sort out the loose filing on my desk.
4. Send back the pension information form sitting on my desk.
5. Write a blog post about my word of the year.

Just five to get me started, though I know a couple of them will be tricky!

Want to join in too? Then just click on the button above and get going!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

To the Trout Pool

The waterfall pours like silk over the edge of the gorge and separates; bursts of white spray plummet down the rock face, carving a path with the sharpness of a knife. The droplets sting as they land on your cheeks. They are hard and cold.
Water explodes into the stream; an injection of adrenalin that makes it swerve and twist, washing  over boulders with foaming ferocity. The channel narrows, slicing through slate earth, roaring past the slick stone path that we are slipping on. It tumbles over itself, throwing kicks and punches as it hurries to get away, swirling through bulbs of rock and churning up the heavy air with a scent of pure freshness. Your nose tingles.
The trout are here. Struggling against the current that relentlessly pulls at them to turn back. They are stubborn. They work their tails, swimming nowhere.
The stream dips away, lost amongst the tattered remnants of trees ripped up and thrown casually downstream.
Trout have made it up the spluttering rock channels. See them like punctuation marks amongst the fragmented sentence of the stream. The current thickens, bunching its muscles as it prepares for the last descent, down into the Devil’s Cauldron where it spews forth in a torrent, only to be silenced by the black iciness of this water. Deep and dark it lies.
Light glances off slate-rock walls that are slick with spray, and a fine mist rises where the water plunges into itself. Life comes here exhausted, battered and bruised by the tunnel falls. Trout make their weary way; slipping and sliding that last rainbow of water. Their scales shimmer in the inky depths, their gills flutter as they suspend themselves for a moment of calm.
The trout gather the last of their strength and we watch them glide the freezing waters to the trout pool. The gorge sizzles with silence in the overhanging forest that peers into the pool. The trout will spawn and then turn back along that bubbling trail, back to the slow snake of water in the valley.
But their eggs lie beneath the surface, beneath the gravel at the bottom. Once the winter has passed we shall see the fry emerge, blinking in the sunlit waters. It will all begin again beneath the canopy of dappled leaves and the rippled surface of the trout pool.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Rewriting is my hobby...

It is a truth universally acknowledged (by writers, writing groups, writing tutors, anyone who has ever tried to put their thoughts onto the page (or screen)) that Writing is Rewriting.

The first draft
Sitting on the beach in St Ives eating chips an image of a girl came into my mind. The girl was seeking shelter under an upturned boat on a cold and starry night. I began writing to find out who she was. Her name was Louie Albright and her story became a novel called The Master Juggler.

            Louie scratched the bite on her forearm with a dirty fingernail, leaving tracks of thin yellow against the angry red swelling. She knew she shouldn’t scratch, but on evenings like this when the cold seemed to be a dog gnawing at her bones, the pain was a good distraction.

Thin and scraggly, she felt like a ripped thread clinging from the corner of a tapestry. Her hair, slick with grease, tangled and knotted, was a dull uneasy colour. She could remember a time when it had been the colour of wild strawberries in the sun. She’d tried combing it with her fingers and tying it back with string, but after three weeks living on the coast, sea salt and sand felt ingrained in her scalp; the string had long since been snatched away by the wind. Her face was pale and freckled, but the air turned it pink, her eyes were as grey as the waves churning under the heavy sky.
 The bite began to bleed and she quickly pulled the sleeve of her jumper back down, patting it over the wound. She pushed her hair out of her face but kept a few strands to suck. It tasted of smoke and fish and sea salt. She had been hanging around the fishermen all day in the hope of a few scraps. They had given her some stale bread and sips of rum. The rum had kept her warm until now, but as lamps burned in the windows of the homes around the harbour, the wind crept in through the holes in her skirt and jumper.
            She’d chosen an upturned boat on the beach for shelter tonight. Beneath her, the sand was cold but not damp so she hoped the sea would not come up this far. The boat was propped up with a lump of rotten driftwood and she sat hunched up to watch the day drift off into night. The moon was high and clear, this was the beginning of the Lunar Year; days would be long, nights bright. The stars emerged slowly, filling the velvety dark with studs of light. Finally Louie stretched out her legs and shuffled down onto her back. She savagely kicked the wood away and the boat clunked onto the sand covering her in a muffled darkness. The wind whined but was no longer able to feed on her. Shivers raced through her body and she hugged her arms around her chest and closed her eyes. Sleep would come reluctantly in fits and starts. She just had to wait…

The first draft of Master Juggler was completed in 2008. It was about a young girl who meets a juggler and storyteller and they run aware together to be free of persecution. I submitted the opening chapters to agents and publishers; the agents and publishers began requesting to read the whole novel, and it aroused some interest in the Chicken House/Times Competition in 2010. But it was never quite good enough. Feedback was always the same: good writing but lack of pace, lack of tension, no motivation, no momentum to keep reading.
I rewrote the first chapters again and again, adding description, cutting out scenes, introducing different viewpoints  and completely ignored the fact that the problem did not lie in the first chapters, the problem was in the heart of the book itself, or perhaps, the lack of heart - it needed a stronger story.
Since completing my Creative Studies degree in 2004, my friend and I had continued to critique each other’s writing in the same way we had done at University - by workshopping sections of writing. This was the same method used on my Masters in Writing for Children at Winchester University and one that most creative writing groups and classes use. Workshopping tends to encourage in-depth analysis of pieces of writing – a lone scene, or stand-alone chapter perhaps – which, although important for refining and honing writing skills, can lead to a disconnect between writing to write, and writing to tell a story. To structure and sustain narrative it’s important to step back and consider what the piece is trying to do, and whether it’s doing it. 
A friend recommended that I read First Draft to Finished Novel: a writer’s guide to cohesive story building by Karen S. Weisner. Although wary at first, I discovered that the worksheets suggested by Karen Weisner enabled me to step away from the intricacies of writing and look at the story arc. My subplots, back story and characters were complicating the story in order to justify their existence. I chose to start rewriting on a blank page with fresh words rather than working on what was already there and that freed me from the weight of all that had come before.

Characters need to be shaped by the experiences that they go through, to do less is to render them flat – events bounce off them without scratching the surface of their skin.When I first pictured Louie she was young, only about nine years old. She was feisty and fiery, spitting out curses and fiercely independent. However, my writing didn’t reflect this. She was often passive and too much of an observer.
 In the next drafts she grew up. She was thirteen, that age suiting the story better, offering more tension between the cusp of childhood and entering into young adulthood. She was stubborn but had seen more of the world to subdue her and make her sad, and this made her distant, unconnected from the reader. Despite the third person limited view point, she was hard to know. In an attempt to create tension and intrigue, I deliberately withheld information about her by making her evasive and her inner thoughts cryptic. Those whom I shared the story with now felt that she was hollow. 
 During a tutorial with one of my students we discussed creating tension.  She had kept key bits of information hidden from the reader and in doing so her characters never asked questions they should have, or answered questions put to them. It made important moments of the story annoying and frustrating. The student told she me that she had done it so that the reader would need to keep reading. I advised her that withholding information does not necessarily generate tension and suspense; empathy and fear for a character does. As I spoke I realised that I had been doing exactly the same thing. It’s so easy to preach without practising.

The second draft
The title Master Juggler actually referred to a minor character. I started the next full rewrite with a new one: WordWeaver which referred to a more important character. This draft fleshed out the characters and the world, but there were still many questions unanswered and now Louie’s character was even more passive, a blurry image on the edges of a story that was no longer really hers.  To decide if it really was her story I wanted to tell, I spent some time getting to know her again. I answered questions about her, tried to draw her, made her feel real to me.

The dissertation draft
Time for another rewrite and another title. Story Seeker encapsulated Louie’s desire for stories, real and imagined and it referred to her, not another character.
            I worked on Story Seeker for my dissertation; I feel it's stronger but still not quite right. Louie is more connected, has strong personality traits, but she is too ready to follow the path she is on.

And so, it's back to the keyboard...

            Rewriting can feel dispiriting at times, but I believe that every rewrite has been beneficial. I am learning about writing, about myself as a writer, and am I getting closer every time to the story that I want to tell.