The importance of small things

The story begins with a flower-bed in a corner of Trerice, a National Trust property near Newquay in Cornwall.

The fun starts here…

The writer has to catch the attention of her readers with more than a simple description of the white flowers. She has to guide them along the ancient flagstone path, to draw their eyes to the smoothness and the ragged unevenness of the stones bordering that path. She has to choose her words carefully. Will she suggest the fresh green of the grass and the darker shade of the foliage? Will she point out the orange lichen on the old granite wall, the shadows on the house? Is this a place of mystery or one of courage and love?

Ideas may be easy or hard to come by, but they are just the start. It’s the clever use of words which bring them to life, involving hours of trial and error. But every word, every paragraph, every completed page, are stepping stones in our growth, both as writers and as people.

THE LONG ROAD

The joy of a recent short break near Lydford Gorge in West Devon turned out to be both relaxing and challenging. There are a lot of very narrow lanes in the west country. You know the sort of thing. Vegetation almost brushing both sides of the car, plenty of bends, and grass growing happily in the middle of the lane. Our Sat Nav wanted us to enjoy them all.

This made me think of writers, The journey towards success seems to go on and on, and the destination (publication) is rarely in sight, except occasionally, except for the favoured few, we may think.

But, hey, wait a minute! Let’s talk about this.

The writers I know who are successful and prolific have worked for hours, days, weeks, and years. They are dedicated to

  • writing even when they don’t want to and it’s incredibly hard work,
  • they persevere and then persevere some more,
  • they edit their work until their eyes are tired and their brains are screeching at them to stop.

I’m talking to myself here, of course, because at the moment, the root of the matter is this: LIFE has thrown up difficulties, and is threatening to get in the way of writing. Has anyone any tips for getting down to work when the going’s tough? For squeezing an hour in when the whole day is full already? All advice considered, with grateful thanks.

Writing notes on ‘Playing Nice’

Writers usually have something to teach other writers who read their work.

This morning I finished reading a gripping, well-written psychological thriller. Playing Nice by JP Delaney is compulsive reading. I am pretty sure I couldn’t come up with a plot as complex and compelling as this.

On the cover it says, ‘What if your child was really theirs?’ Turn the book over and you read , ‘Pete Riley answers the door one morning to a parent’s worst nightmare. On his doorstep is Miles Lambert, who breaks the devastating news that Pete’s two-year-old, Theo, isn’t Pete’s real son — their babies got mixed up at birth.’

From page one the writer grips the reader. There’s no let-up until the very end.

I looked the author up online, and found that JP is already a well-established author, who writes different kinds of books under different names.

Here’s something I read on PJ’s website that I want to keep reminding myself:

‘My relationship with the reader is always fundamentally the same. I never forget that I’m inviting them to come with me on a journey, and that as their host and guide it’s my duty to enthral them.’

My thoughts: I find it fascinating that fiction is stuff that’s made up, and yet it often exposes deep truths about being human.

Ants and their message

Leaf cutter ants

Go to the ant, you sluggard…

In 2012 I took this photograph of a line of leafcutter ants in a Costa Rican jungle. I had no idea what exactly they were doing, why they were doing it, or where they were heading. There they were, purposefully carrying a weighty piece of leaf they had chomped off with their jaws. Did they carry these home like carpet samples, planning to make their colony cosy? Did they feast merrily on them, asking if anyone else had noticed the enormous two-legged strangers in the vicinity today? I don’t remember what our guide told us about these remarkable insects. What I do know is that I thought they were amazing.

Almost ten years later, in January 2022, I watched a TV programme called The Green Planet, where David Attenborough showed us a trail of ants, bringing leaf bits home for an enormous fungus which provides safety and nourishment for tiny baby ants. Without politicians and without the power of speech, the ants run a highly organised society where every individual has a place and a usefulness. Large fellows are defenders of the colony; smaller beings are caretakers of the young. Adventurous types are foragers and leafcutters. Even miniscule ants have a role. They ride on the backs of larger workers and defend them from carnivorous flies looking for a tasty meal. Everyone is valued. Figuratively speaking, no-one has to sit outside the Co-op and beg. No-one has to go without a meal because they’re too poor to eat.

Do the ants have a perfect society? Not quite. As far as I know, stop to hold their faces up towards the sun’s warmth and light; they don’t admire a sunset, or bury their noses in a rose. They don’t gather together to share stories, and they don’t write books or record their history.

Especially important is this. Ants don’t ask questions or seek answers.

Go to the ant you sluggard,
    consider its ways and be wise!

Proverbs 6

I ask myself, what is it God is saying to me personally here? Or to anyone working hard to do their best and to look after their family in a world plagued by turmoil, terrorism and hate?

Is your first instinct the same as mine, to feel a bit upset, to want to say, just a little resentfully, ‘Hey God, I’m not a sluggard,’ and sigh pitifully to make the point.

But then I think, OK, God knows I’m not lazy, and so what is He saying?

He’s telling me to wake up my brain, to rouse myself from complacency.

Go to the ant. Look at the ant. Observe the ant.

So let’s turn to the lowly and mighty leafcutter ants and ask ourselves what we can learn, because they actually do something we as people have only partially mastered. They look after their own, however large the colony grows. Everyone is fed. Everyone is contributing. Everyone has a value.

No-one is more important than anybody else. No-one is less than anybody else.

We humans must remain alert, and refuse to let our minds coast towards sluggardliness, towards accepting all things as they are, towards sinking into the belief that we can’t do anything about so many injustices in God’s beautiful world. As individuals we can do tiny things, and together we will make a difference in the world.

Frog: (Quietly):

We all have our own way of making a difference in the world.

The year’s ending

The year is ending. Hopefully its disappointments have been coped with and learnt from. We all berate ourselves sometimes, for not trying hard enough, for giving up too soon. Steep learning curves are good for us.

I wish my writer friends perseverance, courage, and lots of self-belief. Let’s aim high, and cheer each other on.

Frog: (Rather unwillingly);

I find myself on Happy New Year duty. Well, as we frogs say, ‘Ribbet, ribbet, ribbet.’

What do you mean, miserable? Actually, from here the view’s quite good.

OVERCOMING THE MONSTER

Overcoming the monster—immediately I think of Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Red Riding. Monsters definitely wave a flag in many novels for children and young adults too, tales where reader bite their nails to the quick and/or takes a torch under the bedclothes to keep the nasties out.

For some reason, the thought of monsters took me back to my primary school in the nineteen fifties. The children sat in order of cleverness, determined by the number of sums ticked and spellings remembered in the weekly tests. Every day we had to face Miss Woolcock. There’s almost a tremor in my voice as I say that. Oh, the cold fear she could inject into a class of nine-year-olds. Let me tell you about the day I made a blot on my book, and then, trembling, tried to rub it away. Grey-faced, I nearly lost control of my bladder in the abusive torrent, after which Miss Woolcock snapped at me to get to the bottom of the class. I am sure I almost died.

Now, years later, I can see what a tortured woman she must have been. Maybe she’d lost her fiancé in the war, or her parents; maybe she’d been trapped under rubble for hours on end. Maybe she was of a nervous disposition and spent years frightened of pain and death and loneliness. Being a teacher she had to deal with children, maybe knowing that she herself would never be a mother.

Perhaps we all have potential monsters waiting to get us when something goes wrong in our lives. Monsters like anger, jealousy, fear, pride, intolerance, meanness… shall I go on? Do you agree that It’s always easier to see the monster in other people than it is to identify and face our own? What if we love overcoming the monster stories so much because we want to overcome our own monsters?

I hope Miss Woolcock grew to understand herself as the years went by, and didn’t go to her grave still filled with bitterness and rage.

I think I might have a story coming on!

Frog: (gulps) Hiding? Well, a frog does have a vivid imagination, you know.

RAGS TO RICHES

This is the sort of fairy tale I grew up with in the forties and fifties. I didn’t have many books, and those I owned had very few pictures. This wasn’t such a bad thing as you might imagine, because when I heard a story, the whole thing took place in my mind. Cinderella was poor and ragged. Her sisters were horrid to her, her father a distant figure, her step-mother demanding and unkind.

Modern films and illustrations often make Cinderella so glamorous, and there’s never a raggy and grubby old dress in sight. Even the old-fashioned picture on the left doesn’t do justice to the poor girl’s situation. Perhaps because of my upbringing, I still prefer the ordinary-looking girl I imagined all those years ago. To someone like me, a little girl whose mother had to chop wood to get the fire going in the range on a winter’s morning, who had to fetch water from a tap in the road near our cottage, I can easily empathise with the hardship of the story-girl’s life.

And how amazing and romantic her story seemed. I pictured her singing to the mice that scurried about as she scrubbed and polished. I imagined her as never shrieking at her horrible sisters, but bearing her situation with fortitude. I wanted to be just like her. I was not, of course.

Could anyone real be kind and caring when treated as harshly as our heroine?

Children still love fairy tales, yes, but what I learnt as I looked back at Cinderella and other ‘Rags to Riches’ stories, is that there is something in them that encourages us to be our own person, to strive against injustice and unkindness.

Some of my favourite modern children’s books are ones where the heroes have to fight something or someone much bigger than themselves. They battle against the odds and they win through in the end.

I reckon children will never tire of stories like Lorraine Gregory’s ‘The Maker of Monsters, where we meet Brat, poor, overworked, and alone. Like Cinders he meets his challenges with courage and fortitude.

A hero who finds riches in friendship and kindness. Perhaps the best kind of riches we ever need.

Frog fancies his chances as the Frog Prince.

HEROES ON A QUEST

Once there was a boy…

…whose earliest memories were of bombs exploding, people injured and killed, and fear. A deep, deep fear. Waheed Arian was born in war-torn Afghanistan. He says,’ I spent much of my childhood amongst death and fighting.’ The family escaped to Pakistan, and as refugees lived in camps, often cramped and without basic sanitation. Waheed contracted TB and suffered from malnutrition, which almost killed him. When he was fifteen his parents gave all they had to get him to the UK. He arrived with 100 dollars in his pocket, and very little English.

He became a boy with a quest.

He worked at various jobs to support his family in Pakistan, learned English and studied for his A-levels, because he wanted to be a doctor, making a difference to people’s lives, just as the doctors did in the refugee camps. Waheed says, modestly, ‘I did well enough to be accepted into Cambridge, and I gained additional qualifications from Harvard and Imperial College.’ He qualified as a doctor, and now works for the NHS. His quest hasn’t stopped there, though. This is not the end of the story. He’s developed a pioneering global charity that connects doctors in war zones and low-resource countries with their counterparts in the US, UK, Europe and Australia. During the Covid pandemic, Dr Arian was concerned that Covid has impacted people’s mental health, and he has now launched an online mental wellbeing service. (Read more at https://arianwellbeing.com/about/)

Once there was a girl…

…not a real girl, I know, but once you start reading about Vita in The Good Thieves, she becomes oh so real in your mind. Vita is the heroine you become as you read the book. She’s a stranger in New York, where her grandfather has been cheated out of the castle and land that have been in his family for years. Vita is on a quest to get the property back for her grandfather. She’s plucky and refuses to let fear get the better of her. She makes some unusual friends along the way, and never gives up. The author, Katherine Rundell, is wildly inventive and imaginative.

You want a definition of ‘a quest’? The book is a wonderful example.

The perfect quest…

Here’s how Katherine Rundell keeps us reading, eyes fixed on the text, living in another time, another place.

  • a compassionate heroine with a strong personality
  • a big problem to solve
  • she’s in a place that strange and new to her
  • bad things keep happening and she keeps on fighting
  • she makes loyal friends on the way
  • she attempts the impossible and wins through in the end

When you think about it, all those points apply to Dr Waheed Arian’s true life story. Quests are not just for heroes in books.

Frog: (who has always got something to say)

I shall go where ever my quest shall lead me.

Adventures for readers

Autumn’s coming, and the nights are drawing in. Imagine a fire just inside the entrance of a cave. Imagine the people gathering around as the evening offers a chilly breeze. A father ruffles his son’s hair. A mother puts her arm around her sleepy daughter, drawing her closer. A child snuffles. A baby whimpers. And then the storyteller begins, a tale of huntsmen creeping through the forest, of a strange deer, perfectly white, that stares, haughty and challenging, then disappears into the fading light. Is it the bringer of good fortune or bad? The story-teller smiles. He alone knows the outcome of his tale.

The comforting presence of companions sharing imaginative tales. How humans have always loved stories! And who doesn’t love rooting for the hero and being taken on an adventure? Tales of ships in stormy seas, travelling to lands beyond the horizon. Pirates burying treasure on far-away islands. Perhaps the most famous of these is Treasure Island. Originally serialised in the children’s magazine Young Folks, from 1881 through 1882, under the title Treasure Island or the mutiny of the Hispaniola, it was credited to the pseudonym “Captain George North”. How much more enticing is that than the name Robert Louis Stephenson?

Over the last seventy years adventure writing for children has progressed in leaps and bounds. I grew up with the Secret Seven and the Famous Five, and adventures set in boarding schools, where there were plenty of chums and lots of mysteries to be solved! I still love reading adventure stories for kids. One of my favourites is Journey to the River Sea, by Eva Ibbotson. It’s about Maia, an orphan, who can’t wait to reach her distant relatives a thousand miles up the Amazon. Instead of her imagined loving family, she finds two spiteful cousins who see the jungle as the enemy. Maia meets a mysterious boy who lives alone on the wild river shores, and begins a journey which takes her to the heart of her extraordinary new world.

Writers of great children’s adventure books invite us to suspend belief in the realistic and the sensible, and to go wherever the adventures may lead. Some writers start with the inkling of a plot; some with a character who seems to be calling to them. Some plan down to the finest detail; some make a start and see where the story takes them.

Like all your favourite creators of adventure stories, may we as writers have the courage to forge new pathways into the world of the imagination, and take today’s children on astonishing adventures they hope will never end.

Frog: This is the kind of adventure I really like… all in the mind.

Never say this!

Writers are very sensitive people, so I have some valuable advice coming up next.

Here are three things you should NEVER say to a writer, EVER.

1. Gosh, are you still churning out stories?

2. Are you going to be the next J.K. Rowling?

3. A writer? I’ve never heard of you.

 

 

In the face of such daunting remarks, here are three things you MUST do.

  1. Keep smiling.
  2. Keep writing.
  3. Keep believing in yourself.

 

 

Frog: (Wistfully) I could write a book about  Froggy Potter and call myself J.K.Toadling.

 

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.