Tummies, helicopters, and why I’m a proud dad

tummy     helicopter

The other day my six-year-old son William proved he’s a real chip of the old block, by spontaneously coming up with a flash fiction piece. May I proudly present (spell-checked by me but otherwise all his own work), The Super Tummy:

The Super Tummy

Once upon a time, there was a super tummy. It could fly and scare things off. It was like the Tardis. People went in it to save their lives so it was good and it made many people happy.

He did it for years and years, and one day the King went in him and he was happy. They had fun together and a dalek came but the tummy saved them and they lived happily ever after.

Kind of surreal, right? I reckon there’s some deep metaphysical meaning in this piece, though superficially it might read like an especially deranged example of Doctor Who fan fiction.

But then, a couple of days later, he got together in with his ten-year-old brother George and produced the following collaboration, The Weird Helicopter. From this piece I learnt three things: first, George has been learning about adjectives and adverbs at school and encouraged to include as many as possible; second, William’s creative influence remains evident (he loves helicopters); and third, George was still mad at me after an earlier conversation (see if you can guess what that was about):

The Weird Helicopter

There once was a light helicopter that liked buzzing around rapidly. Then he would lovingly play with his friends (Ben, Leon & Sophie). However, one day when he was flying through the interesting forest to meet his wonderful friends, his annoying dad stopped him and he did his homework.

So my kids are writers! Well apart from my twelve-year-old daughter, who’s convinced that everything I do is embarrassing. Still, two out of three’s not bad.

 

All I want for Christmas

Book Christmas tree

Here’s a seasonal short story. Actually it’s a repeat – I first posted it last December but (1) this blog had far fewer followers then, so I figured more people might read it this time, and (2) to be honest I haven’t had a chance to write a new one, being stupidly busy in that traditional pre-Christmas way.

Anyway, I’ve just finished the third draft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer so I’m happy about that. A lot more still to do though, and my thoughts are turning to 2015 and what my priorities are going to be. But in the meantime, I wish you a very happy Christmas.

And here’s the story ….

All I want for Christmas I

knew there was something wrong about Mr Nicholas the moment I saw him. What happened next on that bitter Friday, six days before Christmas, only confirmed it.

I needed the money. Presents to buy. So when I saw the yellowing card hanging limply inside the door of Nicholas Toys – Help Needed – Apply Within – I didn’t think twice. I must have passed that mean, murky little shop a hundred times without really noticing it. Now it seemed to have sprung to some kind of life, its stringy fairy lights twinkling through the driving sleet.

Shivering as I pushed through the door, I somehow expected dust and gloom inside, but instead I was greeted by glaring neon light beating down from the ceiling. A sharp smell prickled the back of my throat – plastic, cheap cinnamon-spiced air freshener, and lurking somewhere beneath a faint acrid stench that reminded me of leaking batteries. And it was so cloyingly hot I was already peeling off my scarf and coat when he shuffled through a half-hidden doorway.

He must have been the oldest person I’d ever seen. Hunched like a question mark, his face so creased his wrinkles cast shadows. But his pale blue eyes focussed on me with keen attention.

‘Er … Mr Nicholas? I’ve come about the job …?’

He smiled thinly. ‘When can you start?’ His voice was a parched, wheezing whisper, like dead leaves in the wind.

Why he needed me I don’t know. The shop was deserted for two hours. Until, just before midday, the customer walked in. She might have been twenty-five or forty years old, it was hard to tell. Her face was blank and candle-white; mottled makeup fringed the purple ghost of a black eye. She scurried around the shop like a hunted mouse. Eventually she appeared again at the counter and spoke in my general direction.

‘Have you got the any Dizzy Dolls?’ she intoned in a defeated voice. I thought – you’re kidding, right? Dizzy Dolls were this year’s must-have toy, a random craze that had emptied shelves and warehouses across the country. Of course, in that perverse sheep-like mentality of human nature, its very scarcity had only sharpened the population’s desire. If there had ever been any in this shop, they’d have been put right in the window, the price marked up and gone within hours. If not minutes.

But I just smiled. ‘I’m afraid not, madam. Have you tried online …?’

She snorted. OK, I thought, dumb question.

I flinched as Mr Nicholas suddenly spoke from right beside me. ‘Can I help you madam?’

‘I need a Dizzy Doll,’ she whined. ‘My eldest doesn’t want anything else. I just have to get one.’

‘Then it’s your lucky day madam!’ The proprietor grunted as he reached behind the counter and hauled up a lurid, oversized pink-and-purple monstrosity of a box. And to my amazement, poking out through the top was the perfectly-groomed peroxide head of a Dizzy Doll, regarding me balefully with its plastic stare.

The woman gasped. ‘Oh … oh awesome!’ Then she glanced warily at me. ‘Is it genuine?’

It’s not the freaking Mona Lisa, I nearly said. But Mr Nicholas got in first. ‘Of course, madam. But it’s the last one left, mind. I don’t need to tell you …’

‘Oh …’ She looked slyly away. ‘You know, I’ve seen them on special offer on ebay. Half price …’

It was a ridiculous lie. But Mr Nicholas’ smile widened. ‘I understand, madam. We’ll match that price. But there is something else …’ While I wondered if he’d lost his mind, he produced a pen and a sheet of paper with some writing I couldn’t read. ‘The total cost is on this contract, madam. Just your signature required. And then it’s yours.’

‘Oh really?’ The woman wrinkled her nose and took the paper. She studied it; then looked up sharply. ‘Is this supposed to be funny?’

The old man actually grinned, baring yellowish but surprisingly straight teeth. ‘No joke madam. Just sign and this Dizzy Doll is yours. Imagine your little girl’s face on Christmas morning!’ But as he leant on the counter with affected nonchalance, he was betrayed by his wide, ravenous eyes. A born salesman after all, then. But what was on that contract? Maybe it was double the normal price, or even more?

The woman eyed him. Then looked back at the door and made a slight motion to leave. But when she turned back, her face was like the old man’s, shining with a bright and nauseous lust. She shrugged and signed the paper on the counter. ‘You’re crazy,’ she muttered, before grabbing the box and half-jogging from the shop.

When I turned back to Mr Nicholas, he was bowed down as if exhausted – but I saw on his shadowed face a deep, dreamy smile. As if he’d just made the sale of the year.

‘What was the price?’ I asked.

He looked up slowly. ‘High,’ he said, and gave a dry chuckle. ‘And what about you, Peter?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘What do you want? More than anything else?’

I tried to laugh. ‘I don’t have any kids. And I’m not really into toys myself …’

‘I deal in more than toys, Peter. A lot more. Sure, it’s one of my most … profitable areas. But I can get you anything. What do you want, Peter?’

‘Oh I, um …’ A volley of icy rain rattled the window pane and I glanced at the door. ‘Um … look, it’s lunch-time … do you mind if I take my break now …?’

He drew himself up; and for one insane moment I thought he might run across the shop and lock the door. I don’t know why I thought that. But he just nodded. ‘Of course. See you soon, Peter.’

Once outside, revived by the cold air, I tried to find her. I ran. But she’d gone.

I never went back to that shop.

Draft 2, here we go …

Flying saucer

Last time I wrote about my new project, a children’s book provisionally titled Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. The 27,000ish word first draft was finished a few weeks ago. I churned it out pretty quickly – as I’ve mentioned before I’m a bit of a first draft bodger. I had a rough plan but to be honest a lot of it took shape as the words hit the screen.

After that was finished I deliberately left it a couple of weeks. Then I held my nose and started to review what I’d written. This is a tricky time, because that first draft is – how should I put it politely? – a mixed bag. Or a pile of steaming horse manure, if you’re less generous. Bursting with typos naturally, but there will also be problems with plot and pacing, uneven and underdeveloped characterisation, poor sentence construction, too many adverbs, and more than the odd cliché. (Probably also too many parentheses – I’m a terror for that.)

The purpose of the first draft review is to find all those nasty little (and big) issues, to painstakingly (and painfully) document them. And to resist making any changes at all while I’m doing it. It hurts, let me tell you. But it’s a necessary step before I try to rush in and fix everything.

I keep positive in two ways. First: along with the wrinkles, hopefully I will also see a lot that’s good, or potentially good, in the first draft. Things that will be kept, or can be improved and enhanced, as well as things that need to fundamentally changed or cut out altogether. I should glimpse that good book that’s fighting to get out – and my first draft review will be the first step towards its freedom. Second: having written two books before, I know from experience that this really works, that the book will get better as I review and redraft. Something much better will emerge at the other end. Losing the dross is just part of that process. It can’t be avoided.

If you’re interested, here is my completed first draft review of DCFS. I don’t expect anyone to read all of this – indeed, much of it won’t mean anything if you haven’t read the book yourself. But anyway there are three sections:

  • A chapter-by-chapter plot synopsis
  • A list of characters and their main traits
  • Notes on what I think is good, bad and indifferent, along with ideas for improvement – generally, and chapter by chapter.

What this shows is that there’s a lot of work ahead in the second draft. The good thing is that I think the basic structure and plot is fundamentally OK. That’s a relief, because that’s often the hardest thing to fix without virtually a complete re-write. There’s lots to put right though. And one of my main conclusions is that I think there are too many characters (a common problem in my first drafts as it happens) and I could lose one of them. And swap the genders of two more! Well sometime you need to be radical …

Now I feel ready to dive into the second draft proper. I aim to take about 2-3 weeks for that.

And then? That’s when I feel ready to show it to someone else. Someone who will give that vital, fresh perspective and tell me what’s really wrong with it – everything I’ve missed. All good fun!

Wish me luck …

Making short shorter: A Dramatic Way to Clear the Air

storm-cloud

A Dramatic Way to Clear the Air is a 1,000 word story – kind of boy-meets-girl in a thunderstorm. It started life as a longer, 1,500 piece that I wrote about a year ago. Given my recent enthusiasm for shorter / flash fiction, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to try to cut it down – losing one out of every three words – while maintaining the essence of the story.

So I did, and it wasn’t as hard as I’d first imagined. I had to go through it a few times to hack away all those 500 words, but it was surprisingly satisfying – and I really think the shorter version is better. It’s tighter, more direct, has fewer adjectives, adverbs and description, and yet I don’t think it really loses anything in terms of story or the characters.

Sometimes losing word count is a case of cutting unnecessary repetition or elaboration. Often things can be implied rather than explicitly states. One example – the sentence:

She peered ostentatiously at the clock, spidery black eyebrows raised almost out of sight.

… was originally followed by:

The words “you’re late” could not have been more clearly spoken if they had been flashed in blue neon across the walls.

I kind of liked that second sentence, but I concluded that it was basically superfluous. The fact that the woman in question thinks that Pete (the central character) is late for work is clearly implied in the first sentence – it doesn’t really need to be spelt out. So that second sentence was cut completely from the final version.

If you’re interested to compare, the original, 1,500-word version is here: A Dramatic Way to Clear the Air – long version

Short story: A Polite Reminder

underappreciated

Two stressed housemates, a pile of post-it notes and a cat called Howard. It can only end in tears …

For a few years I lived in shared houses. It was a mostly positive experience, sometimes fun, and I made some great friendships along the way. But, inevitably, there were times when the housemates fell out. Occasionally this happened in spectacular fashion – I can remember a couple of full-blown shouting matches – but more often there developed a kind of passive-aggressive war of attrition between people that, due to differing timetables and work shifts, might not actually encounter each other in person for days on end even though they lived under the same roof.

In one house, this involved said housemates writing notes to each other. Superficially a method of passing on information and (mostly) polite requests, there was an unmistakable subtext of seething resentment between the lines of these bland little missives. That was my inspiration for this story, A Polite Reminder, which is written in the form of an exchange of lists, the content of which rapidly escalate from icy politeness to … well, read and find out. Hope you enjoy it.