A Book I Couldn’t Put Down

I’ve just finished reading a book, in less than 24 hours. Not often these days do I allow myself the luxury of picking up a book and devoting most of my attention to it until I’ve finished reading. Not often these days does a book hold me so I say what the hang, I need to keep going, I need to know how this ends.

I’ve wanted to finish reading this book for a long time. A  children’s book, maybe more of a teen or Young adult book, I’ve had the privilege as a day relief teacher of reading the beginning of this story several times, but I’ve never had the privilege of finishing. Last night, looking for something new to read, I turned to Amazon for a Kindle book. I typed in the title and found I had the opportunity  of finding out what happened in this story.

Last night I skimmed through the first few chapters, ones I’d already read three or four times. This afternoon,  knowing I had about an hour to spare, I continued.  How did one  hour turn into a longer period? Where had the afternoon gone? As I read, the book began to make more and more sense. No way I could put it down, until I knew how it ended.

Often I read a book and somewhere between the halfway point and the end I realise  the final chapters will fall into place in a predictable way. With this book I thought I knew how it would end, but continued to be surprised.

So what made this book so hard to put down? The two main characters attracted sympathy, pleading to the reader to hope  right would eventually win over wrong. The book provided  the pre story in such a way I guessed  the ending would  bring the family history of one of the characters to a justifiable end. I never suspected the second character also had his family roots intermingling with the main character further back in time.

But, one of the main reasons I rate this book highly is, realising the end was close, I said to my husband, this is a book I wish I’d written. I envied the author his skills in the way the book had been written. I want to read the book again.

By now you’re probably asking, but what is this book that has occupied a whole day of my life? Remember, this is a children’s or young adults book. The title is ‘Holes’ by Louis Sachar. I’m not going to talk about the plot, you can find that out for yourselves. The book is available as an e-book on Kindle and I’m sure you’ll be able to locate a physical copy, though here in New Zealand I hadn’t been too successful in doing that, other than borrowing it from one of the schools I work in.

I hate finishing a good book. I’m sitting here now with an empty feeling, hoping the next book I choose to read will capture me in such a powerful way. I wonder, is this possible?

Opening Closed Doors in Your Writing

Some time ago I came across an exercise in a writing book that involved pausing in front of a closed door, thinking about both the door and what lay on the other side in detail. The idea intrigued me and I tried a couple of times, but the doors were always too familiar and I was in too much of a hurry. However, the idea of closed doors as a feature in writing stuck in my mind.

Without realising  I’d already used this feature in my published book, West End the Best End – School Memories from the 1950s. The first chapter, ‘The Door Opens,’ starts like this:

“I stood as a four year old on the concrete steps, the wooden door closed in front of me. Tomorrow I’d be five and my school life would begin. The building seemed like a barrier in front of me, not at all friendly. I clutched my mother’s hand. Mum smiled down at me.”

On the last page I wrote,

“Six years earlier a little girl stood at the school door, ready for the next chapter of her life to begin. Now the time had come to close the door and open a new one.”

Doors are important in our lives, both literally and figuratively. We are forever opening doors and experiencing whatever is on the other side of a closed door. The door can be real, revealing something unexpected on the other side, or could be in our mind, leading to new opportunities.

I’m now more aware of how authors use doors in their writing when I read. Such an easy little trick adds detail, builds anticipation and delays suspense. Imagine your character pausing at the door of a familiar place, placing his hand on the handle and using senses to consider the moment.  What will turning the handle and opening the door mean for the rest of the day?

The character gets time to think about what lies ahead. The writer has an opportunity to flesh out the character with a little, showing readers what drives them. The pause doesn’t need to be long, a few fleeting seconds can reveal a lot.

Why not try this trick yourself, with both familiar and unfamiliar entrances. As you reach to touch the handle of the closed door, think about what this means for you. Capture the brief moment in your mind before you enter. Build suspense about what lies ahead.

Now try the same with one of your characters next time they open a door to enter a room or building. Let their eyes take in all the detail, reveal their thoughts  as they touch the handle. Let whatever’s on the other side be revealed slowly as the door opens, or maybe so quickly it has an entirely different affect.

If a barrier holds you back with your writing, imagine it as a door. Go through the same process of pausing, considering and opening so you can move forward.

Opening doors in your writing may seem such a little trick, but it can be an effective addition to a scene when the moment calls for it. Why not try it?

 

Kids Illustrate New Zealand Maori Legend

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with ten year old kids at a school in a small country town nestled at the foot of the hills near the city I live in.  Their learning for the last nine weeks focussed on their local community, changes within it over time and how the community and environment contributes to their lives. When looking for resources, their teacher discovered my retelling of a local legend online and asked if this could be  the focus of my teaching the day I taught in her class. How exciting to get the chance to work with kids using my own work.

The legend, New Zealand Maori Legend of Okatia and the Manawatu Gorge, tells the story of how the Manawatu Gorge was formed, according to Maori legend. The kids loved the story on my first visit and they each produced a small piece of their own writing and some art work. This gave me an idea.

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‘How about we produce the story in book form for the school library?’ I suggested. They responded with such enthusiasm I put the idea to their teacher and the project was on. I don’t mean commercial publishing here, but producing a photocopied version of the story as a spiral bound book.

We spent the second session of about one hour looking at pictures of totara trees, the New Zealand native tree that features in the legend. Frome these the children produced four pencil sketches, getting a feel for what the tree was like, since we weren’t able to visit a real one.

I went home from that session and broke the story into fourteen pages that could be illustrated. On our last session together the children each had a page to illustrate, using only pencil and coloured pencils. They proceeded with such enthusiasm all he work was completed during the session.

The last stage of the project is now waiting for my attention. I need to assemble all the pictures and text, turning them into a book. We’ll make two copies, one for their classroom and one for their library.

We’ve all undergone a great learning journey. The kids now show more appreciation of  a Maori legend relevant to the area they live in. They’ve learned a little geology of the gorge separating their town from the one across the ranges. They’ve also learned about turning a story into a picture book by working with a story board and producing appropriate illustrations. I’ve learned about using my writing in workshop sessions to enable children to interpret it in their own way. I’m looking forward to taking the finished book back to them within the next three weeks.

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The opportunity to work with the kids in this way has been extremely rewarding and I’d definitely welcome the opportunity to do so again. What a delight to see the kids produce their idea of your story with their own drawings. They’ve certainly brought my retelling of the Okatia legend to life.

Read the retelling of the story of Okatia and the Manawatu Gorge here:

New Zealand Maori Legend of Okatia and the Manawatu Gorge

 

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A Glass of New Zealand Wine, Time Zones and Writing Productivity

 I’m sitting here on a warm autumn Saturday evening in New Zealand, sipping a glass of local red wine, thinking about time zones and how they affect bloggers in the southern hemisphere. For those of you writing blogs in the northern hemisphere time zones may not seem much of an issue. For those of us blogging here down under, we are at a serious disadvantage.

You see, while the rest of the world sleeps we’re wide awake, enjoying our day, writing and going about whatever daily chores we choose. Work posted at this time is far from productive. The Word Press Stats page tells me the northern time is currently 4:50 am, while here I am enjoying Saturday evening around 5:40 p.m.

You may not think this difference is a problem, but it does affect the number of views received on a page. When I tweet my efforts on Twitter during my waking hours, views are limited to those in this part of the world, effectively cutting out more than half the world’s population. Consequently I’ve taken to sneaking in the occasional tweet when I wake around 2 a.m. This makes a noticeable difference in attracting new readers to my pages here and elsewhere, but plays havoc with my sleep patterns. Pages published on Word Press during my day are way down the list of newly submitted work by the time most readers wake to the world.

My most productive writing happens in the morning, when my brain cells are fresh and ideas hover in the air like blooms waiting to be picked. In the evening  my creativity has long since closed doors for the day and signed off duty.

However, today is Saturday, a warm autumn Saturday evening here in New Zealand. I’ve finished my usual weekend domestic chores and mowed the lawn as well. I’ve sat reading a book and fallen asleep while doing so. Life has been uncomplicated. I poured a glass of wine as my reward for surviving another day and decided to see which blogs I follow had new postings. Nothing! Everyone is still asleep it seems.

The only solution I can think of is to start writing. After this initial free writing here to warm up my brain, I know many more words will follow.  The night is young.

i ask all you northern hemisphere bloggers to be aware of your southern blogging colleagues and watch put for posts that are submitted at what may seem strange hours for you.

 

Leather Straps and Flying Chalk, School Memories from the 1950s

The thought of holding out your hand to be whacked by a teacher held piece of leather provided a powerful reason to behave at school in the 1950s. In New Zealand, where I live, getting the strap was an acceptable form of punishment during my school days. This violent practice has been illegal in New Zealand since 1990, though I do think students had more respect for their teachers when they understood what the physical consequences of misbehaviour would be.

I loved school and I loved my teachers, but nobody is perfect. As hard as I tried to avoid this fearful form of punishment, I managed to find myself in trouble from time to time.  Whenever the teacher called one of us to the front of the room we all sank further down in our seats, hoping we too wouldn’t become his next victim.

Playground misbehaviour and classroom disobedience rated high on the list of offences for which the teacher produced the strap. The victims held out their hands, some trembling with fear. Temptation to pull your hand away as the strap came down resulted in extra whacks.

I usually received the strap for more minor offences, such as talking too much and spelling mistakes. That’s right, for getting my spelling words wrong in the weekly test. I was a good speller, but if I made  careless spelling mistake I received the same punishment as the others.  I didn’t think this fair at all. Tears filled my eyes, even before I felt the impact of the piece of leather.

Another form of punishment that wouldn’t be tolerated in classrooms today involved a piece of flying chalk. If the teacher held a piece of chalk when someone started talking, look out. The chalk flew through the air with such accuracy it landed on the desk beside you. I think we all in admired his skill of landing the chalk just where he wanted it.

A more preferred punishment involved writing lines while others were outside playing, especially during the colder winter months. My teacher liked variety in his choice of punishment though, so it wasn’t worth misbehaving, hoping to be given lines to write, when he could quite easily choose to strap you instead.

My recently published school memoir, ‘West End the Best End – School Memories from the 1950s’ includes discipline and punishment as some of the anecdotal stories of my memories of my school life. Times have changed and former practices are no longer acceptable. At the time, however, none of us questioned the right of our teacher to inflict physical punishment on us. Getting strapped was a part of school life in 1950s New Zealand.

What memories do you have of school punishment in other parts of the world?

A Play Date with Alliteration

The monthly writing group meeting looms, less than twelve hours away now. My homework is almost finished. Homework you ask? Yes, we call our monthly writing challenge homework. Each month one writer sets a challenge topic for members to experiment with and read to the next meeting. How we deal with the topic is our choice, even ignoring it and writing about something else is acceptable.

Sometimes I dig deep into hidden treasures, finding something previously written, something tucked away and almost forgotten. This month the topic, ‘At the Committee Meeting’ sent me into total panic. I’m currently on a committee having some challenging moments and the less I think about them the better.

I do like responding to challenges though and this year my goal is to attempt each challenge, no matter how difficult it seems. I lay in bed last night, sleep promising to elude me until I came up with an idea achievable in twenty four hours. I pictured a woman, one woman, older than myself, tight curls, a hardened look on her face, demanding to be heard. I gave her a name, Mabel. Now please don’t ask me where that name came from, but she opened the door to my imagination. I’d gifted myself a group of older women, all with old fashioned names, Mabel, Maude, Muriel, Martha and Maisie.

Their names suggested character traits and an idea emerged.  I’d make writing about a committee fun. All the ‘M’ words I’d ever imagined marched into my head and matched with a name on the list. By now I couldn’t sleep, I had an idea to play with. The time had come to become familiar with Alliteration again.

My committee women deserved a memorable introduction to the world. Sentences, short, sharp, alliterative sentences bounced in bursts onto the page. I turned off the light to let the women fend for themselves.

This morning, twelve hours still until the meeting, I’m relaxed. With a little tweaking I’ll have a playful piece to read tonight. I’m not in disgrace. I’ve enjoyed playing with words, creating powerful personalities. My homework challenge can be read to the group.

Alliteration is a wonderful writing tool, providing fun for both the writer and reader through stunning sentences and phrases. Next time you’ve no idea what to write, why not invite Alliteration around for a play date. Who knows what refreshing writing you may create together.

Writing is the Equivalent of an Apple a Day

This started being one of those days when staying in bed may have been the better option. The cat woke me at 6 a.m. with another of his hunting trophies. Of course he made so much vocal fuss I forced myself awake and blearily climbed out of bed to go and deal with both hunter and victim.

Most of the time my husband attends to these things, but he’s recovering from a knee replacement operation and so I’m the household problem solver at the moment. I lost my cool today. I yelled at the cat, told the whole neighbourhood I’m tired of being woken so early, then yelled at my husband telling me to stop ranting. Poor man, he feels bad enough about not being able to help, without my display of childish behaviour. After over filling the cat’s food bowl I crawled back to bed in shame. Not before banging my foot on the fridge door though.

Later, when my normal peaceful demeanour returned, I realised being fed up at times is okay. If I don’t feel sorry for myself no one else will. Not that I’m asking anyone to feel sorry for me. I enjoy a wonderful life.  Today started in less than perfect circumstances, but there’s nothing life threatening about that.

Perhaps it’s just as well I find it more difficult to indulge in a dose of self pity than I do to be happy. It takes work to be grumpy. Only one thing will help me pass through this tantrum, I decided. This situation definitely called for a bit of writing. There’s nothing to say I can’t write about today, instead of recalling the past as most of my writing does. A bit of pounding away at the keyboard never does any harm. An outpouring of the soul is great medicine.

We all need something to turn to when the going gets tough and writing does the trick for me. After a few hundred words the cloud above my head lifted and the falling rain on the roof sounded like music. I spoke to the cat in a calm voice and apologised to my husband. 

Sometimes, when things go wrong, we need to vent our frustrations rather than pretending all is right with the world. Today began being one of those days. The tension is over now, all the pent up pity being released into the atmosphere. I’ve now returned to my normal, smiling self. Life continues.

Writing is the equivalent of an apple a day, don’t you think? Life is too short to stay angry.