Sleepy day and Stone Heart: 2013 365 Challenge #95

A gripping tale after a slow start

A gripping tale after a slow start

I spent today – my first day without the kids in a week – stuck in bed with a poorly tummy. I think it was caused by dehydration from the wind and lack of water during my day out with the kids yesterday. I can be prone to dehydration, especially when I’m writing – forgetting to eat and drink because I’m so engrossed – and I end up with a twisted gut and a sore head. Or I might just have girl flu.

Whatever it was, it floored me. I slept until 2pm, after cobbling together yesterday’s rather rubbish Claire installment, then spent the afternoon engrossed in Stone Heart by Charlie Fletcher.

I initially stopped reading the book after the first couple of chapters, as I found the writing style opaque and overly-cryptic and the main protagonist unlikeable. But when I finished Shadow Forest I ran out of things to read and picked it up again. I’m glad I persisted. It is hard to read – especially for a children’s book – but the characters are endearing and develop beautifully. It’s always a challenge when a character starts out annoying and then grows throughout the book. They have to be annoying in order to have room to grow, but it’s hard to read through the early part when you just want to give them a slap.

It turns out there’s a sequel so I shall be looking for that next time I go to the library. So far it’s two out of two for my random charity shop purchases. Just the Wendy Holden to go.

I’m still feeling ropy so my Claire installment today is likely to be a bit shaky. I’m taking her to Hamerton Zoo – it’s near where she and Sky stayed last night and I should be able to write it without any research. Hopefully normal service will resume tomorrow, although I have an obscenely early kids party so will have to get the post written before bedtime!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire stared at the tiger. The massive white head faced away from her, as if ignoring her scrutiny. Then it swung round and seemed to acknowledge her gaze, before its flat eyes slid away and his attention moved on to the other side of the enclosure.

You poor old brute. What a life, sitting on a platform being watched by things you’d rather eat. Like sitting in a cake shop while the Belgium Buns take photographs. She shivered as the timeless eyes swung round to face her again. The tiger looked down his proud nose at Claire and stood, stretching like a domestic cat, before jumping silently off the platform to walk outside. On the far side of the enclosure Claire could see the orange tiger dozing in the sun. Between them was a giant red football. The sign said they spent hours knocking the ball to each other, but clearly not today. I’d give something to see that. I bet you do it when the zoo is closed right? Why perform for these strangers? You’d like us all to sod off, I bet.

“Auntie Claire?” A hand tugged at her jacket, reminding Claire she wasn’t at the zoo alone. Bugger. That’s going to take some getting used to. What if she’d wandered off, or been snatched, while I was communing with tigers? She turned and squatted down so her face was nearer Sky’s. “Yes poppet?”

“Can we go through the Tiger Tunnel? Can we, please?” She pointed through some pampas grass to a man-made tunnel that looked like it had been constructed from shipping containers.

“Sure, sweetheart. Although the tigers are here, darling.” She gestured to the specks of white and orange; all that could be seen of Blizzard and Lady-Belle.

“The map says there are sheep and goats through there though. And camels.”

Sheep and goats? We could have gone to a farm to see them, instead of this wind-swept, freezing zoo. Not camels, though, don’t remember seeing camels at any farm nearby. Claire stood up, ignoring the protesting creak in her knees and back. The hotel bed had done enough damage; she didn’t want to think about it anymore. Bad enough waking in a different bed to the one she’d gone to sleep in. As far as she could work out, Sky must have crawled in with her in the night and she’d crawled out the other side to sleep in the child’s bed.

I hope Musical Beds isn’t going to be a nightly occurrence. It’s hard enough dealing with all that chatter, without a head full of cotton wool and a broken and bruised body.

Claire let the girl drag her into the tunnel, which had been painted a vile sort of green with pictures to alleviate the metal expanse. They stopped at glass windows to search for Maned Wolves and more tigers but saw only scrubby grass and grey skies.

At the end of the tunnel, wooden gates opened into a small grassed area surrounded by animal enclosures: from reindeer on their right, past rheas, alpacas, sheep and goats, to camels far away to their left. They stood for a moment to get their bearings, when a flash of white and a bleating noise announced the arrival of a mob of miniature sheep, which flocked around their feet.

“Look, Claire, we can feed them. Can we, please?” Sky turned her sweetest smile on Claire and she nodded, pushing through the sheep to reach the food dispenser. As she inserted a twenty-pence piece and turned the dial, another flash of colour alerted her to new arrivals. Four short, fat, black goats came leaping across the grass and, before the food was even cupped in her hand, started jumping and head-butting her legs.

Sky shrieked, as the goats shoved her so hard she fell backwards into a muddy puddle. Oh great, Claire groaned. I hope there is somewhere here we can change. Though I don’t know what I’m going to change her into. What was Mum thinking, packing dresses and tights? Did she think we were only going to do little girl things, or did she hope rich Claire would take poor little Sky shopping? Claire swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth before reaching over to scoop her niece out of the gloop and onto a bench. She worried that Sky would shirk from the boisterous goats butting at her hands, demanding food. Instead the girl giggled with glee, seized the tiny horns and pushed the heads away.

Standing there, mud dripping from her pink dress and leggings, with her once-pink coat flapping in the arctic wind and her hair flying behind her in a stream of gold, she looked like a superhero, saving the world from vicious horned beasties. Claire felt a strange sensation in the pit of her tummy as she stood watching her niece. Something warm and almost maternal; something she didn’t remember feeling for another human being before. It felt like pride.

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My Love-Affair with the Paperback: 2013 365 Challenge #81

A random selection of books

A random selection of books

It seems ironic that, on the day when my second free promotion of Dragon Wraiths goes live on kindle, I visit the charity shop and purchase a random selection of paperbacks. These books cost the same as the average ebook for a self-published author – around the £2 ($3) mark. Yet it’s unlikely that I would buy an ebook from an author I had never heard of, particularly not without a review.

My buying process was the same – I liked the front cover and genre, I read the first few pages and the blurb, and I made a decision. Not the Wendy Holden of course, I’ve got a shelf-full. But the other two are a complete gamble.Yet, even though I’m trying to self-publish as an unknown author, these books feel more ‘real’.

Oh dear.

If I feel like that, and I genuinely know that self-published ebooks can be just as good as something that’s been accepted by a publisher, no wonder Dragon Wraiths has only sold 10 copies. It’s not even like I haven’t read some awful books that were traditionally published. Many of my random charity shop purchases remain unread or unfinished. And yet I still persist in being a paperback person.

Much more attractive than a kindle

Much more attractive than a kindle

Perhaps it’s because I don’t own a kindle and reading books on a laptop, even a little one like mine, isn’t much fun. I did try my mother’s kindle but I couldn’t navigate it (it was the old sort with just a couple of buttons) and soon gave up.

I’m not dissing ebooks (that would be silly as I’m trying, badly, to sell one!). I would have loved a kindle when I was travelling, just as I would have loved an iPod. It would have saved me from days with no company (and from endless commercial radio!). A kindle/iPod combination when I was breastfeeding my kids at 2am would have been a lifesaver.

It’s just that I’ve had a paperback in my hand since I could read.

I often had an egg-sized bump on my head as a child from walking into lamp-posts because I had my nose in a book. I read everything from Mills & Boon to Gone With The Wind before I left Middle School. Reading was my life. Until I hit the real world. These days, more often than not, it’s my phone in my hand rather than a decent book, and blogs and twitter are my reading material.  

Funnily enough, I don’t miss CDs. We have boxes of them in the loft but I don’t feel bereft that the music is now all on the computer. Far from it. I love being able to mash my own selections together without having to copy and burn discs (or, even worse, sitting there with a tape-to-tape set up and a twitchy trigger finger).

With books it is different. They’re a visual medium. The font, the pictures, the creases, the chocolate stains, the warped pages where it got dropped in the bath. These are all part of the reading experience. Seeing which books end up at charity shops in droves. Seeing the ones that have hardly been touched and the ones that have been re-read a hundred times. It’s part of the book history (one of the best bits of my MA).

And so my love-affair with the paperback continues. I might be trying to sell an ebook but I’m not ready to sell-out to digital. Sorry.

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Claire looked up the location of the hostel she’d just booked and swore. “That’s miles from Hathersage and I’ve still got to back for the bloody car. Stupid YHA and their stupid school trips.”

She’d been phoning round the hostels for twenty minutes while waiting for the train home, her new phone sitting happy in her hand. It turned out that several of the Peak District hostels were only open at weekends and during the school holidays for non-school visitors. Not that I really want to stay with a bunch of school kids anyway. Eventually she’d found a hostel near Bakewell that had beds free.

I’m not sure I like the name Youlgreave. That sounds prophetic. What’s going to happen to me there? I’ve already been half-frozen, lost, wedged in a rock and mugged since I started on this trip.

Something about the words you’ll grieve made her think of Ruth. I haven’t called since last week. I’d best make sure everything is okay and Sky is happy to come on the road with me.

She pulled out her new phone, smiling at the unscratched screen and brand new cover. Then she remembered she had no idea what Ruth’s phone number was. With a sigh she delved in her bag for her iPad. I really should memorise some numbers. What if they’d taken my iPad too? I’d be buggered. I barely know my own number.

Eventually she located her sister’s number and was able to call.

“Hello, Sky speaking.”

“Hello Sky, it’s Auntie Claire.” She was about to ask to speak to Ruth when she realised she’d have to talk to her niece at some point. “Um. How are you?”

“Auntie Claire! Mummy’s poorly and Nana is looking after me. She picked me up from school today. We did numbers and PE and I learned how to do a cartwheel and then Susie was mean to me but we made up. And Nana let me buy a cake on the way home to cheer Mummy up because she’s sad. Mummy says you’re taking me to the seaside! When are you coming, is it tomorrow?”

Claire held the phone away from her ear and tried to follow the rapid-fire monologue, wondering which bits she was meant to respond to. She figured the last question would be enough.

“Friday. I’ll be there on Friday Sky.”

“Yippee. I can’t wait. It’s going to be so much fun. Will you paint my nails and do my make-up? Pleeeaasse?”

“Er, sure. Yes. We can do that.” Claire thought about her make-up bag. It must be in my rucksack somewhere. I don’t remember leaving it behind. She made a mental note to buy some child-friendly products before she got to Cambridgeshire.

“Is your Mummy there, Sky?” She held the phone further away from her ear as her niece yelled “Mummy!” She heard the phone clunk, followed by the sound of running. I feel bad for disturbing her now. Maybe I should have called Mum instead, although it sounds like she’s probably there too. A shard of guilt stabbed in Claire’s chest at the thought of her mother looking after Ruth while she swanned around taking pictures and writing for the blog. Not to mention getting mugged and sleeping in noisy rooms with total strangers.

The phone clicked and there was a shuffling noise. “Claire?”

Ice slid into Claire’s stomach at the sound of her sister’s voice. She sounded twenty years older. It has been only a few days? I haven’t disappeared into some new time zone out here in the sticks?

“Ruth? How are you?” She tried to make her voice cheerful but she could hear the wobble.

A low chuckle came down the line. “I’ve been better. I’m glad you’re taking Sky. I’m going to miss her, but I need some quiet. She tries, but her nursing me is worse than her being normal.” The words came slowly, like each one needed to rise to the surface before it could be pushed down the phone-line.

“It’s the least I can do. Look do you want me to come before Friday? Give you and Mum a break?”

“No. It’s fine. I think Mum’s enjoying it in a strange way. It’s giving her so much to be a martyr about. Actually.” There was a pause. “Could you come on Thursday? Sky will be off-the-wall hyper when she finishes school. I’m not sure I can bear it. You can stay here the night if you don’t mind the sofa.”

Claire quickly tried to evaluate which would be worse, staying in the Cambridge hostel with a small child or kipping on her sister’s couch. It might be nice to spend a night away from the hostels. Carl doesn’t need to know.

“Sure sis, I’ll come Thursday. I can collect Sky from school.”

“Okay.” The phone went silent. Claire didn’t want to hang up. The words you’ll grieve thrummed in her mind. But it was clear her sister was exhausted.

“Great. I’ll see you then. And sis… take care.”

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The Tricky Question of Funny – 2013 365 Challenge #9

From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - Claire is P.O.S.H. (that won't mean anything if you haven't seen the movie!)

From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – Claire is P.O.S.H. (that won’t mean anything if you haven’t seen the movie!)

I’m struggling with writing Funny. I want Claire to be one of those characters you come across in the best funny novels, by the likes of Wendy Holden, who make you laugh out loud (either with them or at them).

Right now Claire feels a bit morbid. Her life is shallow and she has no real friends. This is important for her character development. But I can’t see how to inject humour without humiliating her and I don’t want her to be clumsy or stupid otherwise it will be harder for her character to develop. She’s more wrapped up in work and taking it too seriously than genuinely vapid (I love that word – it’s one of my husband’s favourite insults.)

My research is clearly going to need to develop beyond hostels, bars and motorway routes, to include How to Write Funny (suggestions always gratefully received). A quick Google search turned up this interesting article so I’m sure some proper time spent on it will help me no end.

Anyway, here is installment #9. Hopefully I’ll be able to spend a bit more time on the next one, once the children are back at nursery (they’re currently asleep on the sofa, having drifted off watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I’ve turned over to Antiques Roadtrip, as I’ve seen the Chitty movie about thirty times since Father Christmas gave it to my son…)

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Claire drew a flat-pack box from the pile and pushed it into shape, splaying her fingers so the corrugated cardboard wouldn’t scratch her nail varnish. The storage people were due in the morning and so far she’d only just made a start packing up the lounge. Looking around Claire realised it wasn’t going to take long. She rarely spent time by herself and therefore had no need for DVDs or novels. The few books she owned were mostly business ones given to her by Carl. Who Moved My Cheese sat alongside The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. She had often wondered what Carl’s motivation was in leaving the books on her desk.

Was he being a good boss helping me climb the ladder to the Board, or hoping I would take the hint that I’m not Director material?

Two weeks ago she would have asserted it was the former; now she wasn’t so sure. The look of glee on Carl’s face when Mike from Accounts had lunged in for a snog was etched deep in Claire’s memory. It had been like watching a pet cat morph into a tiger.

Claire filled the box with unread books and unopened CDs – Christmas gifts from her siblings – and closed the lid. She wrote “Charity Shop” on the side in marker pen, then straightened up and went to get a glass of wine from the fridge.

The kitchen isn’t going to take long to pack up either, I barely come in here. The fridge contained a tub of humus, some wilted celery, and a bottle of champagne that Michael had left behind. Claire knew without looking that there wasn’t much else in the cupboards. She generally ate at the office or picked up takeaway noodles on the way home. Cooking for one wasn’t worth the washing up.

The champagne cork popped loudly in the empty apartment and Claire angled the frothing liquid towards a waiting flute. She felt something ping inside her chest as she opened the Veuve Clicquot: the emotional equivalent of her bra-strap snapping, freeing a tension she hadn’t noticed was there.

Damn you Michael, she thought as the cool fizzy liquid trickled down her throat. If nothing else, you had great taste in Champagne.

Claire carried her glass through to the bedroom and slid open the mirrored door of the built-in wardrobe. A complex pattern of hangers, drawers and shelves confronted her. Three perfect rows of stiletto heels took pride of place in the centre, surrounded by neatly folded cashmere sweaters and impeccably pressed shirts and skirts. Claire knew every item intimately, as if surveying a room of close friends.

She ran through the contents of the closet in her mind, trying to imagine which items might suit slumming-it in hostels. Steve had joked that she’d be better off binning the lot and buying some jeans and tops from Tesco. Claire thought she’d rather skin herself alive.

Selecting her cheapest things – her black GAP jeans, a few M&S jumpers and a pile of pressed Ralph Lauren tops and shirts – Claire began folding the remaining items before packing them into her Louis Vuitton luggage. When the wardrobe was empty Claire carefully placed the bags into boxes and labelled them “Storage”.

By the time the champagne bottle was empty, Claire’s life had been piled into half a dozen brown boxes. Her new rucksack was loaded with all the things she deemed necessary for a year on the road. She frowned at the red and grey bag as it lolled by the front door next to her one pair of flat shoes.

Don’t get comfortable. You and I are not friends. In a month my LV bags and I will be on a plane to the Maldives and you will be in a wheelie bin.

Then she collapsed onto the bed without undressing and closed her eyes.

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Related Articles:

The Secret of Writing Funny  (writetodone.com)

Humor Writing (writingnovelsthatsell.com)