Mr. Bell

Mr. Bell wafts into the shop on a near-winter’s eve, hunched over his stick, little beetle eyes glittering. “You have some books for me,” he tells me at the counter, and so far, so good, though he’s approached my till from the wrong side of the queue.

“Sure thing, what’s your surname?”

“It’s Bell,” he answers, slow and loud, as if I might be foreign or deaf. “B – E – L –”

“Right,” I say. “Got it.”

There’s three books in the cupboard for him. I bring them all to the counter. He paws over them — two Nelson Mandela books, one aimed at children under the age of five; the other a thick tome on Palestine written in 2012. He asks me to keep the Mandela books while he continues to peruse the Gaza strip.

“Your colleague,” he says, “told me I could have this for half price.”

There’s only one colleague who might ever have offered such a thing, and I strongly doubt even he would’ve said any such thing. When I tell Mr. Bell that the book isn’t on our half price offers and probably never has been, he eyes me beadily and frowns. “But you can still give me a discount.”

It’s not a question. It is merely a patently incorrect statement.

“I can match the price on our website, if it’s any lower,” I offer.

Of course, the price is not lower on our website.

“How much is it?” he demands, not even attempting to find the price on the back, despite his pawing.

“10.99,” I say, pointing it out.

“I’ll give you seven for it.”

By now, the queue is seven customers long. I have no choice but to tell him that our price for the book is its retail price, which is, despite his haggling, still 10.99.

“It’s too much,” he protests.

I shrug.

He makes a show of considering whether to take the book or not, hands it back to me. Finally, he pulls out his wallet. “Fine then,” he says. “And a bag.”

“The bag is an extra 5p,” I say, just so that we’re all on the same page and also because I am entirely done with Mr. Bell. 

“Fine, fine, I’ll pay with my card.”

Somehow, I’m not surprised when the card gets declined.

Twice.

“What is wrong with your machine?” asks Mr. Bell.

“Your card’s been declined,” I clarify.

“No, you’ve charged me twice!”

“Oh, no the payment hasn’t gone through. It’s been declined.”

“It’s your machine! What else could it be?”

I look him dead in the eye as I answer: “Your card.”

I deign to try the card on the other till, where, surprise, surprise, it’s declined yet a third time. “Fine, fine,” concedes Mr. Bell. “I’ll pay with cash.” He fishes through his wallet and hands me a ten pound note.

“It’s 10.99,” I tell him. “And 5p for the bag.”

“You think I’m going to try to steal the bag?”

I resist the urge to tell him that’s exactly what I think.

“So one pound and four p more, sir,” I say.

He hands me a pound coin and a small silver piece covered in Cyrilic. “There!”

“Sir, that is a Russian coin.”

He glares at me, truly angered now. “How do you know?” he demands. “Do you speak Russian?”

I take his point. For all I know, the coin could be Bulgarian. Still, “I’ll just need five p for the bag,” I say, handing him back the coin that may very well be Serbian or Belarussian, but is definitely from somewhere in the former Soviet Bloc and entirely not legal British tender.

He takes it back and digs deep into his pockets. Finally, the correct currency exchanges hands. I present Mr. Bell his purchase over the counter and tell him to have a nice day. He grunts in response, and wafts out of the shop, into the cold, dark near-winter’s evening.

His Christmas shopping has only now begun.

How you can use Nanowrimo to build a year-long writing practice

Five days into November, the fireworks are flying, the coffee is flowing, and all over the world, novelists from all walks of life are furiously scribbling away, aiming to reach the goal of writing 50,000 words by the end of the month.

Started in 1999 when Chris Baty was told, in no uncertain terms, that it was impossible to write a novel in a month, National Novel Writing Month — most often abbreviated to NaNoWriMo, or even more conveniently, simply NaNo — has grown over the course of 20 years to become a world-wide celebration of novel-writing. Every year, it attracts a range of word enthusiasts from first time writers to published authors. Over the course of November, local branches organize communal write-ins, and everyone caffeinates furiously. 

It’s amazingly fun, but if you’re a word-addict, then there’s no reason that the excitement and noveling have to end come December. In fact, if you’re serious about shifting your writing habit into high gear, then NaNoWriMo is just the beginning. Here are three tips for using the month-long challenge to build a year-long practice that will keep you writing well into the non-November future.

1: THE KEY TO NANOWRIMO: JUST KEEP WRITING

Let’s get one thing straight: 50,000 words in thirty days is an ambitious goal. While it is entirely doable, it’s definitely not easy, hence the “challenge” part of writing challenge. But one of the best things about NaNoWriMo is that it provides participants with the tools to face that challenge head on — daily goals, progress trackers, accountability and milestones, not to mention prompts and inspiration. When you break it down, as they do on the NaNoWriMo website, 50,000 words over the month of November is really just 1,667 words per day.

For most of us, that’s still a heckton. But, if you’re looking to sustain your writing in the long term, then it’s brilliant, because it means that you’ve got a concrete goal, every day, to sit down and write to your word count, along with reminders and a way to track how much you do. And even if you don’t hit your goal every day, guess what happens when you train yourself to sit down and write every day for 30 days?

Chances are, on day 31, you’re going to find it a lot easier to find the time and motivation to sit down and write. For me, this has been the number one thing about NaNoWriMo that keeps me coming back. Though my daily writing practice may slip over the months, especially when it comes time to redraft or edit, November always gives me a chance for a reset — the opportunity to just sit down and write, as much as I can, every single day. The 50,000 word skeleton draft of a new novel is just icing on the cake.

And if you’re having trouble getting started, then here are some more tools to get you to just write — butt in chair and fingers on keyboard, or pen in hand.

  • Write or Die – if you’re struggling to find motivation to write, this website gives you a simple choice….
  • Prompt of the day – for a daily bite-sized idea, look no further…
  • TVTropes Generator – which not only gives you the twists and character types to use, but explains and explores various tropes with examples

2: IT’S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE, TAKE A BUDDY

Everyone knows that writing can be a very lonely profession. Still, anyone who has been writing for a while can tell you how important critique partners, writing buddies, and beta readers are to keeping up motivation and making your work the best it can be. While writers may work alone, putting down words in the small hours of the night or morning, huddled in bed or in the corners of their favourite cafes, no writer creates anything in a vacuum.

NaNoWriMo is the ultimate chance to meet like-minded wordsmiths, both online and IRL. The NaNoWriMo community is one of the most open and friendly writing communities I have ever had the honor of joining, and over the course of two international moves, it wouldn’t be going too far to say that NaNoWriMo has even, on occasion, saved my (non-writing) social life.

Taking advantage of the write-ins run by your local liaisons is the number one thing you can do to ensure that you’ll have writing cheerleaders in your corner for the rest of the year — and who knows? You might even make the sort of writing friendship that lasts a lifetime. 

3: EVEN THE ADRENALINE DOESN’T HAVE TO END IN DECEMBER

When December dawns and you’ve finalized your November word count, when you face the daunting prospect of redrafting and editing the 50,000 word monstrosity that you’ve created, when Christmas carols start haunting your every waking moment and the prospect of a year until the next NaNoWriMo stretches, bleakly, before you — take heart! Because there are definitely a whole host of other writing challenges that can fill the NaNoWriMo-shaped hole in your soul.

For one thing, you’re going to want to edit that bad boy (please tell me you didn’t think that putting 50,000 words on paper was all you had to do to write a novel!), but even that can be a challenge rather than a slog. Check out these month-long editing challenges, which promise to bring your manuscript to a whole new level.

If you just want to keep the wordcount flowing, though, there’s a few other low-key challenges that continue all year long. Imagine writing 300,000 words in a year! It’s definitely doable, though how many novels you’ll get out of it rather depends…

  • 750 words a day – exactly what it says on the tin
  • Write Year – because November only comes but once a year
  • CampNaNo – a choose your own adventure setup from the people who bring you NanoWriMo

Finally, novels don’t have to be your only outlet. If you’re a die-hard wordsmith looking to expand your range across all shapes and forms, it’s definitely worth your time to join these challenges, which range from poetry to twitterature. 

Have you signed up for NaNoWriMo and are you hitting those wordcounts? I’d love to hear what you’re working on and how it’s going for you — so let me know in the comments how you’re using NaNoWriMo, or let’s connect on nanowrimo.org! And remember: just keep writing

Six Things I Learned from Reading like THREE HUNDRED Stories Written by Six-Year-Olds

My writing career as a published author* began at the ripe old age of ten, with a fifth-grade English project. Each of us was to write and illustrate a short story. When we were done, our words and pictures would be printed and bound. We’d be published, with an actual physical book that was our very own!

Though my first book, alas, has been lost in several overseas moves, I still remember the story I wrote for it. It started out with a girl who decided to use her dad’s time machine in order to study for an upcoming history test. She went back in time, got into a difficult scrape, and came back — just in time to learn that she’d missed the history test anyway, and therefore would be receiving a big, fat zero for all her efforts.

Where did Dad get a time machine? Not important. Somewhat depressing ending? It was ten-year-old me, so of course. Pretty cool story for a fifth grader? I like to think so. Horrible, horrible, ear-grating prose? I would be lying if I tried to claim being James Joyce at ten years old.

But it was a story: a real, complete story. I was very proud.

They say that artists and writers are just children who never grew up to abandon their creative streak. After all, there isn’t a single child below the age of ten who doesn’t enjoy making up stories and either writing them down or scribbling them into pictures.

That said, even though we as a species have a natural affinity for story, it’s safe to say we do get better at them given time, picking up a few tricks and techniques as we grow older and wiser. But like any other craft, the rules of storytelling are made to be broken. Recently, Wimbledon Bookfest asked me to be the bookseller judge for their annual young writers’ competition. In the course of judging the contest, I read three hundred (and forty two) stories written by children between the ages of six and eleven. 

This is what I learned.

Rule #1: Break the Rules

One thing I did marvel at in every single story by our young writers was the sheer creativity of their work — their descriptions, what they chose to write about, their dialogue and metaphors. Though much of their prose was rough and unpolished, there were some brilliant gems, such as: “the volcano lost its temper”, or “I can taste the bad weather,” or the one story that turned out to be from the point of view of a meatball. 

So often, we as adults, especially adult writers who have studied The Craft, get caught up in trying to follow (or subvert) story formulae and rules of good style. But if anything, our young writers’ stories consistently remind us to reconnect with that boundless, rule-defying creativity that we had as children, and to colour, every once in a while, outside the lines.

Engaging Characters are Cool, but not Too Cool

“Jack is a naughty, cheeky, and disobedient dolphin, so if you ever come across him, don’t give him any dangerous ideas.” The most engaging of our young writers’ stories almost always started with an interesting character — one who promised to get into an entertaining dilemma that we’d enjoy watching unfold over the course of a page or two.

Of course, we also had our fair share of writers who fell into the trap of describing their characters as “the nicest,” “the sweetest”, “the cleverest”, or “the coolest,” and in reading these stories, it became clear why the perfect character (often called a Mary Sue or Marty Stu) is a trope best avoided. Often, what followed was a story that fell flat. From the get go, we knew that those characters (unlike cheeky dolphin Jack) wouldn’t really do much that would impress us — after all, they’re already the coolest kids in school, so what could they possibly do that would make them any cooler?

Conflict is Key!

It’s easy to write about your day. As children, very often the first long form writing we do is that of a daily diary. But there is a distinct difference between a diary entry and a story — and while the first may be easy to write, there’s a reason that very few people outside of our parents and our older selves find them particularly gripping. More than just the fact that a daily diary mostly captures ordinary, boring, every-day life, it often lacks that ever-so-vital element of compelling reading:

Conflict!

This was probably the element whose absence was most readily felt in the largest swath of stories by our young writers. This year’s theme of “The Island” invited a thrilling mixture of adventures and pirates and dreams and quests, but just as often, it inspired a young writer to daydream about an idyllic vacation in the sun and sand where they went sunbathing on the beach and swam and played, but… well… nothing much actually… happened.

I much prefer a pirate attack myself, if I’m being honest.

A Series of Events, however Unfortunate, does not a Plot Make

Speaking of things happening, was it Chekhov who said: “The King died, and then the Queen died” is not a plot, but “The King died, and then the Queen died of grief” is? It sounds like something Chekhov would say, anyway**. And in any case, both that quote and Chekhov’s particular fondness for firearms point to another vital element of a good story that some of our young writers grasped and some didn’t, namely continuity.

Among our young writers’ submissions, there were a fair few where lots of things were happening — here, there, and everywhere! — and yet, somehow, even if the story didn’t end with their narrator waking up to find that it was all just a dream, the events never quite added up. This is because once you have a conflict, the happenings of the plot need to occur as a result of what came before. And when a writer finds a way to pull that thread of continuity and connection through the whole of a piece, it really does pay off, as we saw with our competition winners.

Play with your Readers’ Expectations! 

Perhaps it says something about me more than our writers, but I was thoroughly impressed by these primary schoolers’ ability to consistently put together a story, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. But one thing that made the honourable mentions and the winners stand out from the rest was that they managed not only to spin their tale, but to throw something completely new and unexpected into the mix as they did so.

There was the story that began “Once upon a very long time ago — about last Wednesday–”, the dark ending to the winning story of the Year 5 and 6 entries, and the one tale that managed to pull off the “it was just a dream” trope by playing a double subversion. These writers did more than just give us engaging characters to follow through an entertaining plot, they managed to do the unexpected, and that always earned points of respect from us Judges.

Endings are Difficult. Important too, but mostly difficult.

I mean, everyone knows that beginnings are hard. Writing them the first time around is hard, and making them work to hook your reader is even harder. And then, of course, middles are really tricky, with all that plot development and character development and pacing that you have to get right. But you know what’s actually really hard? And I mean really, devilishly, mind-bendingly difficult?

A good ending. Probably eight out of every ten of the stories I read for the contest ended with “and then she (or he) woke up, and it was all just a dream.” There’s a reason this trope is older than feudalism, and a reason that it is rarely used nowadays, except to poke fun at the idea of storytelling itself. 

But if the popularity of the “and then they woke up” ending among six-year-olds says anything about story, it’s that satisfying endings are intrinsically difficult. For many of these young writers, they’d taken their characters (and us, as readers) on a journey, only to realize, as most of us seasoned writers have by now — endings are hard. But they are also the most vital part of a story, because without a good ending…

Well, I’m not sure what my point was, but it was all just a dream anyway, so there.

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Just kidding. My point is that so much of what we do as storytellers comes from instinct and intuition, but being aware of things that generally don’t work helps us become more intentional and effective in our craft over time. Still, while we’re learning ways of being better writers, we should always be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking there are rules that must be strictly followed. In truth, there’s only what works for your story, and what doesn’t. And on that note, I’m actually going to leave you with this thought from the one and only Trainer of Dragons, Cressida Cowell, who was the speaker for the competition’s Awards Ceremony:

Cressida Cowell

“It’s always going to be the children who pull off the impossible, simply because they don’t know the rules yet.”


Wimbledon Bookfest is happening October 2019, from Thursday the 3rd to Sunday the 13th. Hope to see you there.


Notes

*HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

**Actually, it was E. M. Forster

My Take: “My Brother’s Name is Jessica” by John Boyne

First off, let me put one thing out there before anything else — I went into reading this book with the best intentions and only the fullest sympathy for John Boyne as an author. I knew about the controversy that had erupted on twitter and social media (as it does), and I picked up our shop’s ARC of the book fully intending to focus on what Boyne got right.

Alas, it didn’t turn out to be a lot.

Putting aside the book’s representation of trans issues for a moment (yes, we will get to it), even just in terms of Jessica as a story, there is very little that I found I could enjoy. Pretty much all of the characters are awful, and I even found it difficult to root for Jessica, for reasons that we’ll get to in a minute.

As for the others, Sam, our narrator, is a thirteen-year-old boy who spends most of the novel either blaming Jessica for the way his classmates bully him, or worried that he might “catch” being transgender. Their parents are a conservative MP and her secretary, both of whom spend most of the novel being racist, bigoted, or cuthroatedly ambitious, all while openly claiming they’re none of those things. There are very few moments when they are shown to be at all sympathetic to their kids. Most of these are shoehorned in, either by Sam or Jessica proclaiming how “good” or “supportive” their parents are (without those traits ever being demonstrated), or by Mom and Dad Waver admitting, as if it were a great confession, that their jobs and feelings might not be the most important thing after all, given the bigger picture. Of course, they then return to ignoring Sam and lying about Jessica in the next scene.

On the one hand, I understand Boyne’s urge to portray the difficulty that many people have in learning to accept and understand trans folk. That difficulty and that gap in understanding experience is very real, and any honest portrayal of a trans character in modern society would have to address it in some way.

On the other hand, at one point, Dad Waver seriously asks a psychotherapist if electroshock therapy is “something that still goes on” and might “get results.” This is played, in the text, as if the author is making an inside joke.

Oh but wait.

It gets worse.

Because it seems the only three people who can understand Jessica’s struggle at all are her psychotherapist — whose only defining feature is that he looks like a guy in a band; her football coach — who could care less about gender, so long as the team keeps winning; and Aunt Rose. And of course, Aunt Rose is a stereotypical hippie liberal who dresses up in trash bags and takes in homeless people off the street, marries them, then divorces them, you know, the way we hippie left-wing bleeding hearts do.

But perhaps the most frustrating and damning aspect in all of this is the portrayal of Jessica herself — or Jason, as she is referred to as throughout the novel, up until the very last chapter of the book. In Sam’s eyes, Jessica is always “my brother Jason.” He’s “the best brother” and it’s clear that Sam idolizes him. But Sam is not sympathetic to Jessica’s struggles. The only glimpses we get of Jessica’s take on all of this are pithy, generic quotes that seem designed to encapsulate the “trans struggle” (“I’ve always felt this way.” “Just because I feel that I’m a girl doesn’t mean I have to like everything that girls like…” “Don’t you realize that my gender has absolutely nothing to do with what’s going on in my pants?”), and a lot of crying. We see none of her interior world, none of her struggle, and it’s not her strength or her perseverance that wins out by the end of the book.

Which brings me to the most important point in all of this. The central conflict of the book isn’t centered around Jessica’s journey, or her character development. It’s not about her winning people over to accept who she is, or her coming out better or stronger. In fact, it’s Jessica herself, her being transgender, her acceptance of her own identity, that is set up as the antagonist, the conflict, the obstacle for Sam and his entire family to overcome. It’s only when Jessica offers to give up her identity and live her life as a lie for her family that the plot is resolved (even if that resolution does, eventually, involve her family supporting her transition).

In short, this book is not Jessica’s. It doesn’t belong to her. It’s about everyone else but her. And when you look at it like that, it’s not hard to see why the trans community has refused to embrace it as theirs.

After all, it’s hard enough being the Other in everyone else’s books, never mind those that are supposed to be yours.

Goodbye, SIDAS. Goodbye, Slovakia.

Note To Readers: The Next few blog posts are from my Slovakia backlog. I am posting them quite a few months after the fact. 

At the very beginning of this crazy journey, when I first put in my application for SIDAS Active English weeks, it was part of a larger winter adventure plan designed to take me out of Malta for the better part of the season. I partied in Berlin on New Year’s, came by train to a country and a program that I knew almost nothing about, drank with Slovaks and learned at least a couple words in the language. I fell in love with Prague, met some awesome people, and truth be told, I was planning on spending a couple more weeks doing more of the same, traveling and learning and seeing everything that this strange, beautiful region has to offer.

Alas, we have come to the end.

Continue reading “Goodbye, SIDAS. Goodbye, Slovakia.”

The Scavenger Hunt Dictation: a Hyper-Active Activity for Teaching English to Young Learners

If you’ve ever wanted to see your kids crawl under a desk while learning English, then have I got the activity for you! Probably one of my favorite things to do with young learners during the first few days of class, this variation on the running dictation is adapted to be just a bit more active, and I can guarantee you that it’ll get even the most reluctant students itching to get out of their seats.

The Scavenger Hunt Dictation

Young Learners (11-16) || Any Level || Groupwork || Listening/Writing (Spelling)/Language Awareness

Continue reading “The Scavenger Hunt Dictation: a Hyper-Active Activity for Teaching English to Young Learners”

Village Life

Note To Readers: The Next few blog posts are from my Slovakia backlog. I am posting them quite a few months after the fact. 

Stary Tekov is a proper village. There is no possible way it can be confused with a town–not with a population of less than fifteen hundred people, where the only restaurant serves nothing but ham and potatoes on Sunday evenings (or fried cheese upon special request), and the only grocery is a Co-op the size of my rented room, which closes by five in the afternoon.

Continue reading “Village Life”

Further Adventures in Vegetarianism

Note To Readers: The Next few blog posts are from my Slovakia backlog. I am posting them quite a few months after the fact. 

It’s the last week before my Easter Break, and having arrived just this afternoon in a village known as Stary Tekov, yet again, I find myself lucky to have gotten dinner. Let me put it this way: Stary Tekov is small enough that its population demands only a single shady bar. The Co-op is closed on Sunday, and the nearest restaurant lies in Levice, some fifteen minutes away by bus and almost an hour’s journey by foot.

Continue reading “Further Adventures in Vegetarianism”

LEVEL UP! The Birthday Post

In other news, it was my birthday last month, which means that I have managed to survive yet another orbit around our mid-class yellow star. It means that I have advanced a year further in my life, and this, more than anything, demands a moment of reflection:

I am now 29.

scott_pilgrim_3-350x229

Continue reading “LEVEL UP! The Birthday Post”