Over the last few months I’ve been trying to write stories for kids. In the past I’ve written a couple of books for adults which were fun to write but also a hard slog at times. I was thinking that writing children’s stories would be an easier ride. Nope.
I decided to write stories rather than a novel. I wanted to do a series of stories about a number of regular characters. I thought it would be good if they fitted together in a similar way that episodes in a television series do; separate stories fitting together into an overall story arc. I remember reading Enid Blyton stories as a kid especially the Brer Rabbit and Amelia Jane stories. In these, there was a limited number of characters inhabiting a particular environment, e.g. animals in the countryside, toys in a nursery etc.
So far I’ve written five or six stories about a character called Susan who is a seven year old girl, and a more enigmatic character called Mr. Sixty. The regular characters are Susan’s mum and dad and various other people such as Susan’s school teachers and friends. The characters live in a small seaside town.
As I wrote each one I started off feeling really pleased but I then read them aloud to my seven year old daughter and, although she liked them from the start, I noticed several parts that didn’t work. The main problem with those sections was that they were either too rambly or too description-heavy. I realised that children’s stories need to be lean; there’s absolutely no room for flab. There must be not one word there which is not essential. If the writer rambles on about how pretty the sea looks then he or she has lost the reader. The only things you need are character and story. That’s it. All the rest of the stuff, the bits which show what a clever writer you are, go out of the window.
This is undoubtedly the hardest writing I have ever done. I still lack confidence when doing this kind of writing and so I wondered whether I dared to publish one of the stories here on my blog so that I could get the views of all those who read it. If I do, would you be prepared to give me your opinion, either as a comment here or as a message to my email address? I’d be really grateful. I may post the first story of the series here so you can read it and then give me feedback. What do you think? My email is firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m unusual, I think, in that I have never supported a team. I’m talking about football teams, of course. I can’t say I feel any particular loyalty to my home town either (it’s a dump). Neither am I strongly allied to a political party. I don’t feel much of a kinship with a country (I’m British but I don’t claim that Britain is superior to any other country). The awful truth is; I’m just not a team player. At job interviews you’ll always get asked ‘are you a team player?’ as though team playing is always a good thing. But it’s not. Not convinced? How about I name some powerful and effective teams? Al Qaeda. British National Party. Boko Haram. Irish Republican Army. Ku Klux Klan.
At work I’m a member of a team and it works really well (mostly). Teams can be good. People work in teams every day of the year in hospitals, hotels, governments, hairdressers, shops and factories and achieve wonderful things. Competition between teams can drive people to achieve excellence such as when the Russians and Americans were locked in a bitter battle to be the first to land on the moon in the 1960s. But our need to belong to a team or ‘tribe’ can become toxic.
Seemingly, there exists a need for humans to feel a sense of belonging. These days that can be hard to find (just like a ‘good heart’). When we feel a strong allegiance to a family, a football team, a political cause, a nationality, a religion… we feel empowered, energised, protected and strengthened. The problem arises when we feel we need to defend that allegiance, no matter what. Allegiance can lead us make skewed decisions.
For example, I know rational people who refuse to dress their children in colours worn by football teams which rival their own. My own grandparents refused to attend the wedding of their only son if if it took place in the church of any other religion apart from their own. Maybe it’s part of our ancient, tribal drive to survive. When humans lived in tribes it must have been essential to prevent competing tribes from taking the food. Back in primitive times it must have been a matter of life and death. Maybe we’re still more primitive than we like to think.
It’s a weird impulse in us. Think about this; I say my favourite colour is orange, you say your favourite colour is purple. I say why I think orange is so good and immediately the person who likes purple is on the defensive. Purple person feels the need to tell me why his decision to love purple is a better decision than my decision to love orange. ‘Join us’ the purple people call to the orange supporters and if the orange people are feeling disaffected or abandoned or failed by the orange cause then they may consider switching to the purple gang. And if they do switch, they will defend their new cause with the same vigour used to defend the previous one. When you’re a member of a team, you defend that team, no matter what. For me, being a team player means accepting the team’s actions without question. And the most important thing of all is to always always always always always ask questions.
In a way, even a family is a team. We all feel loyalty to our family (even me), In fact, personally, that is the only team I can honestly say I feel a part of. I know that I would defend my family to the death, no matter what. If me and my wife and kids were on the Titanic and there were spaces for my family but no other on the lifeboat, I know that I would do anything in my power to make sure that it was my family getting saved, even at the expense of others. I would even kill to save them.
So maybe I’m more of a team player than I thought.
I’m a supporter of libraries and my local library is brilliant but they made a faux pas with this signed first edition of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. Look where they stuck their label; right over the signature.
Doesn’t really matter: Joel Dicker’s bestseller is a good book signed or not. And without the library I would never have read it anyway.
This week, while driving, I got yelled at three times. The first time, an old bloke was behind me in the queue for the traffic lights and because they were taking a long time to change to green he actually jumped out of the car, knocked on my window and shouted “Come on, they’re f***ing broke, you ar**hole!” Pensioners shouldn’t use words like that. You don’t get words like that in Soduko. The Countdown Conundrum is never ‘ar**hole’. He was, however, wearing a neatly appropriate traffic-themed pullover. Chevrons..
The second time a woman actually stopped her car to shout across the lap of her mortified female passenger into the window of my stationary car to tell me that I’d parked dangerously and requesting that I relocate my vehicle (I’m paraphrasing there, she used her own specially selected vocabulary. Loudly.). I was not parked dangerously but I would have been more than happy to move if she had not come at me with such aggression. “I’ll call the police!!” she bawled. “Do it!” I heard myself shouting back. “DO IT!!!”
The third time, I was waiting to join the flow of traffic by turning right (coming out of the Co-op at rush hour! Not advisable) and a man behind me who was desperate to turn left, actually mounted the pavement in order to squeeze past and simultaneously shriek at me (who says men can’t multi-task?). He seemed not to be able to decide which particular term of abuse to throw at me because he ended up spluttering “You, you, you, ffff… you…. ming!”
Ming?! What is a ming exactly? I was equally angry at this point so I wound down my passenger window especially to have a lovely interaction with this Neanderthal (why didn’t I just ignore him?) but all I could think of to shout in the heat of the moment was “I beg your pardon?!” like some pathetic, wet, Victorian gentleman played by Colin Firth. The most surprising thing of all though was the bloke actually honoured my weak request and repeated his insult “Ming!” even though he had half-realised that the word he’d shot at me wasn’t even a real word. He had emotionally committed himself to it now though so had to repeat it. Loudly.
Three horrible confrontations in one week. I normally avoid confrontation like the plague but, on the roads, this is getting more tricky. There’s more and more cars, of course, and the roads are getting more and more broken down and neglected because councils have slashed their maintenance budgets due to the recession. It feels like the country has been in crisis mode for a long time now. The cracks are beginning to show and not just in the roads. It’s become a lot harder for lots of people to just get by.
Everyone is trying to get somewhere, everyone is late, everyone is over-stretched and over-stressed. In other spheres of life we try to maintain a degree of decorum but when we’re concealed and isolated inside our sweaty, little, tin cans on wheels, all bets are off. Just getting by has become a big ask.
Do cars turn us into aggressive monsters or do they just remove the social masks behind which we usually hide? I admit that I often get a red mist descending in front of my eyes when someone is holding me up by driving at 20 mph in a 60 mph zone. Then the next minute I feel a stab of guilt when I realise that the offender was a little old lady just like my Nan. When some idiot shouts abuse at me from their driver window I do feel a cold rage grip my heart and murderous thoughts explode in my brain. I hate the morons who eff and blind at me at junctions. But I also hate the person I sometimes become in response to them. There are lots of morons out there who drive us to fury but I suppose I should try to remember that, to them, I’m the moron. The Neanderthal behind me at the Co-op today… Like me, he was just trying to get by.