Friday, 29 July 2011

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a captivating and original book which I have used for writing exercises with adults and children. This picture book, by the American author Chris Van Allsburg, consists of a series of mysterious and haunting images, each one accompanied by a title and suggestive caption. I find it impossible to look at them without beginning to immediately start conjuring up stories.
It’s easy to find the images from the book on the internet and the Houghton Mifflin Books website has quite a few children's stories inspired by the book and details about a collection of short stories by outstanding authors – again, all inspired by The Mysteries of Harris Burdick – which is due to be published in October 2011.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick begins with a letter from the author providing a fictional(?) explanation of how he came across the pictures of Harris Burdick through a friend, Peter Wenders. The explanation details how, Burdick presented the pictures with their titles and captions to Wenders in hopes that Wenders would be interested in purchasing the stories that accompanied the illustrations. Wenders was intrigued by the pictures and asked Burdick to submit the corresponding stories the next day. However, Wenders never heard from Harris Burdick again, so the "true" stories behind the pictures were never revealed, which invites us, as readers, to start providing our own versions.

Following this ‘letter’, are the fourteen illustrations, such as these:

This drawing of a boy fast asleep in his bedroom with five small, round lights hovering in the air above him has the title "Archie Smith, Boy Wonder" and the caption "A tiny voice asked, 'Is he the one?”

The strange illustration of a nun levitating through an abbey on a chair has the title, ‘The Seven Chairs’ and the caption, ‘The fifth one ended up in France’.

The following is writing is my own, inspired by the picture from "The Third-Floor Bedroom", which has the caption - "It all began when someone left the window open," and shows a room that looks completely normal but for the wallpaper bird that seems to be coming to life and flying off the wall.

Paper Doves
It began when someone left the window open. I thought at first that it was just the wind. Then it dawned on me that a light breeze couldn’t possibly cause the wing on one of the doves on the wallpaper to flap so.
As I watched the fluttering white slap back to the wall, only to peel away once more, it dawned on me that there should be another dove near the loose piece of paper. The green background and the surrounding leaves and roses were there, but there was a definite dove sized gap in the otherwise regular pattern.
Hearing cooing outside, I walked closer to the window. On the ledge a snow white paper dove was pecking unsuccessfully at a scrap of chickweed growing from a crack in the stonework. Rather than reeling back in surprise at the sight of the live wallpaper dove, the actual thoughts which sped through my brain were mostly concerned with the logistical problems a two-dimensional bird might face when attempting to feed.
The flapping behind me increased in volume and was accompanied by a sound like a thousand flautists tuning up. I turned to witness a flurry of white gliding towards me.
Like the first petals floating on a May breeze, the doves, now free and without a care, soared over my head and escaped through the open casement.
It was a wondrous sight.
They rose towards the purple evening in a smooth ascent and I gazed after them until they were confetti heading towards the horizon, keeping pace with the setting sun.
Even now, years later, I sit in my rocking chair in front of the fading green wallpaper, with its empty leaves and roses, and imagine my missing doves are still out there somewhere – tiny apostles of peace.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Strange but True 2

Here’s another 'strange but true' report that attracted my attention:

Worker dead at desk for 5 days
Bosses of a publishing firm are trying to work out why no one noticed that one of their employees had been sitting dead at his desk for FIVE DAYS before anyone asked if he was feeling okay.
George Turklebaum, 51, who had been employed as a proof-reader at a New York firm for 30 years, had a heart attack in the open-plan office he shared with 23 other workers. He quietly passed away on Monday, but nobody noticed until Saturday morning when an office cleaner asked why he was still working during the weekend.
His boss Elliot Wachiaski said "George was always the first guy in each morning and the last to leave at night, so no one found it unusual that he was in the same position all that time and didn't say anything. He was always absorbed in his work and kept much to himself."
A post mortem examination revealed that he had been dead for five days after suffering a coronary. Ironically, George was proofreading manuscripts of medical textbooks when he died.
 .... You may want to give your co-workers a nudge occasionally.

Here’s the start of something I wrote after reading that report. It’s an unfinished first draft, and I’m not entirely sure where it’s going – perhaps a short story, perhaps the first chapter of something…

The Stamp Collector

        When Matthew Anderson died I lost my job and so began a very dark time for me. It wasn’t as if I’d even been directly responsible for his death. It was a heart attack for God’s sake. It could have happened at any time. The trouble was it happened while he was at work, in my section of the trading floor, and no-one noticed for four days.
        The unfortunate Matthew remained at his wretched desk for four days and nights, his computer screen still reporting the most up to date information on the stock market. No-one even commented on the hours he was putting in. That was totally normal for someone in derivatives. Only, for some reason, I was the one who got called into the office for an inquisition. I tried to open that final meeting with some sort of defence of my position.
       “Look, I know things have got pretty bad. I’ve been depressed. I’m not trying to get sympathy or justify anything, but I honestly don’t think this is my fault. Ok, I’ve stopped noticing a few things. I admit my eye’s been off the ball.”
        “He was dead for four days, Johnson.” The CEO’s face was taking on that thunderous look I recognised so well.
        “But no-one else thought it was odd. Anderson always worked long hours.”
        “He was one of your team for Christ’s sake. Don’t you even speak to your own people?”
        “We have motivational meetings every Monday morning, sir.”
        “Such a shame he inconveniently died on a Tuesday then. Look Johnson, the truth is you’ve become a liability. You’ve lost us money and now you’ve lost us a trader.”
        I stood looking at him with my mouth gaping open. The CEO went on to make further allegations about my performance. He mentioned the two warning letters that I’d already received. He brought up the matter of the unauthorised trading which had lost the bank thirty-five million. It was only luck that he hadn’t found out about my affair with Corinne, since romantic associations on the trading floor were strictly off limits in case the couple engaged in fraud along with their other activities. His parting words hit me in the gut.
        “Just hand your security pass over, Johnson.”

        And that was it. I was briskly escorted out by the security guard and chucked unceremoniously into the underground car park. I wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye to my team, though what happened next let me know that Corinne, for one, wasn’t going to be much bothered by my departure. As I heard the lift doors open I turned to look back and there she was, with a cardboard box in her arms. She must have been clearing out my desk while I was being hauled over the coals.
        “Don’t even think about getting in touch, Simon.” She stared at me with eyes like cold, blue steel.
        “But I thought we were going somewhere, Corinne. All those nights we’ve shared.”
        “All those nights where you’ve pawed me over you mean, the whole time refusing to take off your stupid white vest.”
        I flushed at her jibe. I could never let any woman see me fully naked. Not since the tattoo. How I had paid for getting drunk that night with the Crewe Collector’s Club. Their idea of a great joke was to get a penny black tattooed on my left shoulder. The thought of anyone finding out about my hobby filled me with revulsion, so I kept my back covered at all times.
        “Corinne, please…” I was not above pleading. I needed her.
        “Face it Simon, we’re over. We’ve been over since you lost your Midas touch. I don’t want to be shackled to some burnt out trader. I’m going places where you can no longer follow.” And she walked coolly back into the bank’s headquarters, leaving me to carry the contents of my desk to the nearest Metro station.

        The Midas touch. It had been true. Every deal I was involved in had flourished and grown and made Barnabus Credit a fortune. Yet here I was, 32 and out of the game, and it was all down to my hobby.
        The truth is I’m addicted to the unlikely passion of stamp collecting. It began as an extension of my stock portfolio, then turned into a way of making social contacts who were outside the aggressive world of stock trading. I made some good mates in stamp circles, though some, like the Crewe crowd, could be a bit mad. I’d also made some enemies. Serge, for one. He’d dogged my bidding footsteps since I’d first started going to auctions here in Paris. He took great pleasure in taunting me from across a crowded hall and raising the stakes ever higher until I had to bow out. That’s what made me take risks at work, I guess - the desire to build up enough in my bank account to blow Serge out of the water. I’d nearly done it too, except I crashed and burned before all deals were closed, and now I had to think of something else to do. My name was blacklisted across the whole of the financial world and all doors there would be forever closed to me.
        I walked down Rue Neil clutching the groceries I’d bought at my local Monoprix. They mainly consisted of cheap red wine, but I’d thrown in a baguette and some goat’s cheese to line my stomach. I’d also bought the local rag and planned to spend tomorrow searching the jobs page, but tonight I was going to get spectacularly drunk. 

So there you go. Try it yourself. If nothing else, you’ll have some fun reading some of the many the strange but trues that are out there, and you never know, it could be the start of your next bestseller.

Strange but True 1

I enjoy 'strange but true' newspaper stories and have found them to be a good place to get ideas. I usually search the internet with some arrangement of the words ‘strange but true newspaper reports’, and I’ve built up quite a collection of these now, although I haven’t always followed them up with some writing. Every now and then I come across a real gem though, which sparks up something in the creative process. The common theme in stories resulting from these  'strange but true'  accounts does seem to veer towards the dark side of life, with just a smidgeon of humour alongside.

Here's one I like but haven't yet found time to use directly, although it did spark a short story. I guess it attracted me because up until 2010 I was a deputy headteacher and the idea of school improvement through the use of black magic struck a chord. I’m not sure how it would go down with OFSTED, or how I would keep a data trail as evidence, but the whole idea got me thinking about using black magic to change something in your life. That led to me Googling 'voodoo'. You can see the results in my e-book A Wry Smirk from the Dark Side in the story The Spell.

Principal Tried ‘Magic' To Cure School
A principal who took an unusual approach to improve her TriBeCa high school — allegedly hiring a "black magic" practitioner to cleanse evil spirits through a ceremony involving sprinkled chicken blood — is being forced out a month before the school year starts. A replacement principal has not yet been named.
"There was always a running joke that, because many of the students were ill-behaved, we should use sage to cleanse the building," an assistant principal at the school told city investigators. Then, during midwinter break in early 2006, the principal invited her assistant to a Santeria ceremony that would involve chicken blood.
The assistant said she did not attend that ceremony but did go to a second rite where a woman shuffled Tarot cards under a cloud of cigar smoke. The assistant principal said she was later pressured to pay $900 towards the fee for this service.
Investigators did not interview anyone who attended the first Santeria ceremony, but a computer technician told them he saw the principal and two women walk into the school over the midwinter break dressed in white clothing and white headdresses. One balanced 40 lighted candles on her head atop a stainless steel tray, he told investigators. The principal introduced these women to him as "black magic" practitioners.
A Los Angeles man who identified himself as a high priest of Santeria, said chickens are commonly used in cleansing ceremonies. "All the negativity passes into the chicken," he said. Then the chicken is slaughtered. A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said that the principal has already been pulled from the school and steps are being taken to ban her from working in other city schools.

So there you go. Try it yourself. If nothing else, you’ll have some fun reading some of the many the strange but trues that are out there, and you never know, it could be the start of your next bestseller.


Thursday, 21 July 2011

100 Words

In the winter of 2008/2009 I was very busy at work and not getting enough time to satisfy my desire to write. I know, I know. If I were a “real” writer I would have found the time. Why is it we put ourselves down like that?

Anyway, I stumbled across this website 100 Words. It was set up to help writers be productive, getting them to commit to writing 100 words each day, every day, for a month.

Membership is free and you can write about anything you want, in any style, but the word count has to be exactly 100 words for each day. Working in this form allows you to be creative, within a set format, though not all of it is finely tuned perfection. Some of it is more along the lines of stream of consciousness, giving you a tiny window into someone else’s life.

I wrote every day for 3 months over that winter, posting my work in monthly batches. It helped me develop a discipline – a bit like the suggestion for when you are blocked, to write anything, even if it’s the same repeated word over and over. I’ve never tried that, but I would recommend 100 words to you, if only to read some great, inspiring writing.

Here are some of my 100 word extracts:

Jonathan North strolled into the room causing all the diners seated to stare up at him. All the waiters standing by stared up too. You could say that everyone looked up to Jonathan and you would not be lying.
Clutching his pale blue nightshirt nervously, he tipped his grey top-hat to one particularly buxom woman who was fixated on his nodding head, which reminded her of a toy dog that sat on the back ledge of her car.
“How de do da.” Jonathan smiled, revealing his three remaining teeth to the stunned diners, and brushed his lank wispy fringe from his eyes.

Molly stretched her top up to her eyes. Wiping away the tears left damp patches of a darker grey along the bottom of her T-shirt.
“I lost it.” She lisped to the teacher.
Daniel Hardy felt a sharp tug at his heart as the two saucer sized eyes met his own.
Her tiny face, dominated by those aquamarine oceans, crumpled and tears threatened to rain down onto his mark book.
He wanted to comfort her and his hand almost reached out to stroke the silky blond hair. Not appropriate, he mentally admonished himself, resting his interlocked hands on the desk.

The stretched-out expanse of undisturbed snow called to her. It tempted her onto its freeze-dried flatness, sleeplessly bright and treacherously calm. Blinded by its purity she took her first steps, tentatively crushing the crisp surface and leaving ridged footprints in her wake. Instantly the chill wind made her eyes water, only for the frigid tears to freeze on her cheeks. A need to mark the unsullied whiteness overcame her and she reached out to the leaden sky. Like a felled oak she keeled over backwards and lay spread-eagled, her wide, staring eyes framed by their filigree frosting of white lashes.

She emerged from the river choking, weeds and water trailing from her shorn hair, hands making a frantic clutch at the sodden layers of underskirts which now revealed her bare thighs. It was strange how in moments of terror something mundane could occupy every space in your head, but protecting her modesty was the least of her worries. Struggling against her bonds was pointless and every effort served only to use up precious oxygen. Feeling the first downward motion of the beam she took a lung filling gasp of air as once more she was plunged beneath the icy water.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

My first e-book

After being given a Kindle for my birthday, and seeing how many independent authors were self-publishing their own books, I decided it was time to get in on this e-book lark.

I am currently in the editing stage of writing my first novel, but I thought I would try and sell a few of my short stories which were sitting around in laptop files. I enjoy reading short stories, particularly when I am travelling. I used to buy magazines of them when going away on holiday, but there are tons to download for a Kindle at about the same price as you would pay for a magazine.

Publishing through Amazon is relatively easy. There are lots of guides on the internet, so I am not going to attempt to write one, but setting up my account took just a few moments. The next couple of hours were spent formatting my work, which included taking out all the formatting I had previously put in.

You do need to spend a bit of time designing a cover. I did this largely on Word, using an image I had and some WordArt for my name and the title. Again, it was not difficult.

Strangely enough, pricing the book caused me some problems. I should have researched a bit more on this. The book is small, just four short stories, so I wanted to price it low, but you set the price in dollars. I checked the exchange rate and set it for $1.20, but failed to realise that Amazon adds VAT, so instead of the UK price coming out at about 70p, which is what I was aiming for, it ended up as 86p. In future I think I will set the price at 99 cents.

Once you have uploaded your book and hit “Publish”, all you have to do is wait 24-48 hours before it magically appears in Amazon’s Kindle book lists. to see it show up.

Of course, selling your book is a whole other ball game. Time to search for some more advice! In the meantime you can check it out on: