Fire Mask Journal
DAY 1 October 7 2008 Lawfield Primary
I've never been in a 'Contemplation Room' before, but Lawfield Primary has one; and believe me, after two hours driving through solid rain and traffic queues, a Contemplation Room was just what I needed. A Contemplation Room, and a mug of strong tea, served with two healthy oatmeal biscuits.
I'd also never used an interactive whiteboard before, but Lawfield Primary has them too. And as I wrote up my list of key words - 'brief', 'genre', '9-13 age range' - I kind of wished they hadn't.
There's an uncomfortable, dragging sensation with a whiteboard; a sort of 'time lapse' between the writing of the word and its appearance. Also, when the word does finally appear, it's all wobbly and childlike. It doesn't look like you meant it to look. Even more unnerving is the fact that, if you put the pen down wrongly, all your wobbly writing disappears.
I did, of course, put the pen down wrongly.
The whole operation made me feel as though I'd had a bit of a lobotomy. And unfortunately, as things turned out, that whiteboard-induced lobotomised feeling got worse as the morning went on.
Don't get me wrong, the children were wonderful, and things got off to a flying start. I told them why I was there, and how excited I was to be planning a new book with lots of children to help me. I explained how I'd written Bima and the Water of Life, and showed my research notes and pictures and shadow puppets.
I told the children that when writers begin to plan a book, they surround themselves with appropriate pictures and photos and objects, to give them inspiration. Thus surrounded, they wait for ideas to appear.
But, I stressed, ideas don't always appear 'to order'. In fact, they usually appear when you least expect them - when you're on your bike, or in a bus, or in the bath. Moreover, I told them, ideas grow organically. They mustn't be forced or hurried.
Then I produced my masks. Some months ago, I'd made the executive decision that this joint book will be a thriller and it will have masks in it, and I thought I had amassed a pretty impressive collection. With all this visual stimulation, I was sure ideas would come flooding in.
They didn't, though. Not really. And it wasn't the children's fault. They couldn't have been more enthusiastic, or tried harder, but they simply weren't old enough to be planning a book for 9 - 13 year olds. They were Primary 5, and their minds just weren't ready to grasp what I was on about.
What I was on about was the emotions a mask evokes. Why does it scare us? And why do some masks scare us more than others? I'd brought disgusting 'undead' monsters and evil clowns with gaping mouths full of rotten teeth, which the children modelled with aplomb. I'd brought Noh masks, some flawlessly beautiful, some desperately sad, some monstrous, and Commedia masks from Venice, and a Victorian paper half-mask. And I'd brought a 'neutral' mask - perfectly white and expressionless.
I wanted the children to analyse what it was about these faces that made them feel uneasy. Were the 'horror' masks scarier than the 'pretty' ones? Or was there something even more sinister about a mask that was too beautiful? Too perfect? Is a mask worrying because its wearer gives you no reaction? Do you fear the wearer because you don't know what he or she is thinking? Because, hidden behind a false face, he or she has all the power?
A few children, when I spoke to them one-to-one, showed that they did understand and were able to analyse, but mostly the comments were 'It's scary', 'It looks like a Chinese Emperor', and so on. With quarter of an hour to go before lunch we gave the children paper and asked them to write down anything that had made an impression on them.
As before, they tried really hard, and all the time I was thinking 'This is exactly, precisely, what I don't want them to have to do. What writer would sit down to brainstorm ideas when their stomach was rumbling and they'd just listened to someone talking for an hour?
What happened to ideas 'growing organically'?? Here are a few of the children's thoughts:
I think the clown was quite evil and it did not seem trusted. The plane mask was scary it has big eyes. The mummy was not that scary but I would not trust him. - Kyle Maben
The clown freaked me out! - Ryan Paterson
One mask looked like Jorge Woshington scary odd weard freaky suspicious. - Lewis Sutherland
I could not trust the white mask. I want my mummy. The emperor one was creepy. - Hamish Murphy
Makes me feel that they are very very smart and wise. - Rachel Paul
I was scared because the mummy was scary because a wee bit of skin was missing. The clown was a wee bit funny and scary because of his big red nose and he was funny because of his green hair and big mouth. - Kayleigh Williamson
I left Lawfield and went to the Scottish Mining Museum, in search of inspiration. After a welcome lunch, I explained to the staff what I was doing, and asked for permission to photograph.
They couldn't have been more helpful. They let me wander wherever I wanted, even fetching me a real miner to take me down 'behind the scenes', where I clambered over rubble and nettles and briars, and crunched over ancient coal dust, to see the top of what remains of the circular pit shaft, now filled in. ('Taggart' had just been filmed there, and there were still pieces of yellow-and-black crime scene tape tied round one of the arches, where a 'foul murder' had been committed. The first tingles of inspiration ran up my back.)
I filmed everything, inside and out. I took close-ups of wall textures, of brickwork with plants growing out of its ancient cracks, of rusty dripping pipes.
I photographed creeper chains and tub circuits, and bright red ladders with 'Keep Out' signs tied across them ... Ladders waiting for a child to escape teachers' watchful eyes and climb up?
I talked to retired miners about the conditions they'd had to endure, and asked them all sorts of questions, including 'Do you have to be black to be a colliery cat?' (Lady Victoria Colliery has a squad of 'wild' cats, which they feed, as well as a huge number of roosting pigeons they would prefer not to have). ... What child can resist following an injured cat - even if it means walking across a rusty beam?
The more I saw and photographed, the more excited I became. This was the location for the thriller - I was sure of it - and when a miner guide told me they were about to hold a 'Hallowe'en Ghost Night' for Primary schools, I knew I'd hit the jackpot! So, here's the plan: Next school I go to - Newtongrange Primary - I will show the videos and stills and, with the children's help, really get into the nitty-gritty of characters, motives and plot. And of course I am hoping that one of the schools is actually taking part in the Hallowe'en Ghost Night.
The Lawfield children have promised to design a mask for the book. One boy suggested the title 'Hallowe'en Nightmare', and that gave me the idea that perhaps the book could have a character - maybe a girl? - who is seriously scared by someone wearing a mask. She begins to have a nightmare which obsesses her. Perhaps that mask reminded her of an unpleasant event in her early life ...?
When her class goes on a trip to the Mining Museum, she secretly takes a hideous mask with her. She's going to have her revenge ...
This Museum is like Lady Victoria Colliery, but there's a crucial difference. Where Lady Victoria's pit shaft is filled in, this Mining Museum has an open pit shaft. It's strictly out of bounds, of course. Only an idiot would go there ....
She doesn't mean any harm. She simply wants to get her own back. Lead her tormenter somewhere, away from the class, and give him 'the fright of his life'. Serve him right, giving her nightmares. It's just a joke, isn't it? Like the joke he played on her?
But 'the fright of his life' gets out of hand. The joke goes way too far. Downwards.
My lobotomy-feeling's gone. I think maybe we've got ourselves a plotline ....
DAY 2 October 28 Day 2 Newtongrange Primary
Personally, I have nothing against Tesco clothes. I buy the odd jumper there myself. But - if the children of Primaries 7A and 7B at Newtongrange are anything to go by - the 'Tesco' label has to be the ultimate kiss of death to street cred. Be assured, if you're wearing 'Tesco Value', that street cred of yours is a round, fat zero.
The group I worked with on Day 2 at 'Nittin' was composed of selected children from the two senior classes, and represented a wide range of abilities. We began by outlining the 'story so far'. Basically, Character A scared by Character B, using a mask. Character A seeking revenge, (?also using a mask) but with the fatal difference that this time the 'scaring' takes place in a disused coal mine.
My expectations for Day 2 were high. I planned to find names, genders and personalities for Characters A and B. I also wanted to establish a circle of friends for each character, and - most importantly - a reason for Character A's exaggerated reaction to a simple Hallowe'en mask. And, of course, a motive for Character B's actions.
That done, I intended to go on to discuss settings. I had sifted through my collection of colliery photos and video clips, and aimed to show some of them, then ask the children to brainstorm descriptions for selected scenes.
But as I drove to Dalkeith on a glorious autumn morning, I could feel my sites lowering with every golden mile. Why rush through this most important of sessions? Characterisation, as every writer knows, is of paramount importance. Good, believable characters that readers can sympathise with are absolutely crucial to a story. At Nittin, I decided, I would find my characters. Only my characters.
And I did. Lots of them. But, in the end, even my hopes of finding two characters proved over-optimistic. In the end, I have Character A - and I'm quite content with that.
The session started slowly. I felt a lot of the children were embarrassed by my questioning, and that some of the boys used bravado to hide that embarrassment. This resulted, at first, in suggestions that weren't very interesting or usable.
Gradually, though, the children began to feel more confident. Discussion - especially over gender - became extremely heated. There were four (female!) adults in the room - the P7B teacher Liz O'Brien, my editor Vicki Rutherford, and a Barrington Stoke rep and former Primary teacher, Gaynor Fry - and there was little doubt what we wanted. A male Character A.
Inevitably (although, all the same, it did rather surprise me) a lot of the boys felt that a boy would be much less likely to be scared by a mask than a girl. One even evoked 'higher levels of testosterone' as his justification. Several girls concurred.
Some rather heavy manipulation then ensued. Surely, we argued, our book should aim to break stereotypes? Surely it would be more interesting if Character A were a boy?
Slowly the balance tipped in favour of a male Character A, and eventually a vote was taken and 'Jimmy' (so-called, temporarily, because 'Jimmy' tripped more easily off the tongue than 'Character A') was born.
As the discussion of Jimmy's background and personality gained pace, you could have cut the air with a knife, so thick was it with ideas! Many sounded like things the children had read in books, and that was understandable. They were, after all, doing their darndest to give us great material - and where do you find great material, if not in books?
But as we probed deeper, underlining the fact that their ideas should be original and believable, things became very exciting. Soon it was time to commit those ideas to paper.
Having told the children - as I always do - that I find drawing my characters very helpful, I asked them to do that. I also asked them for 'mind maps' containing ideas for personality traits, family background and, if possible, something 'quirky' - some little thing that would make our Jimmy stand out from any other character that ever lived within the covers of a book.
And I asked them to choose a proper name for him, and perhaps a nickname too.
This last half-hour or so, when the children were busy drawing and writing, was the most useful time of all. Removed from the group, children were much happier to talk about their ideas. Some very sensitive issues were discussed in this one-to-one situation, and there were certain children whose depth of thought really stood out.
Back home, I sifted through the results. I made a general list of comments that tended to keep appearing - the dreaded 'Tesco Value' labels, a much-loved pet dog, small stature, giving rise to the nickname 'Squirt', and so on.
A lot of children suggested Jimmy should live in a Home, or with his Gran. Many also said this Gran would be ill - mentally or physically - or abusing drugs or alcohol.
I was slightly uncomfortable. The Jimmy that was emerging was definitely an all-out loser, and I began to feel the unremitting pathos of his situation and personality dragging me down. Surely our 'Jimmy' had to have a bit more to him than that! I really didn't want too much 'victim mentality'.
I examined the pictures and chose the most inspiring ones. Although many are brilliantly drawn, my selection was not based on artistic merit. I chose images which really shaped my thinking about the character, and the overall story. So here they are - a few of the brightest stars in the studded Nittin sky:
But although I was smitten with 'Josh', there was something about Jamie Allison's 'Jeff' that I wanted to include in 'Josh'.
Josh's father was fighting in Iraq, and was badly injured while dealing with an unexploded bomb. He'd completed a year of valiant service, been awarded a medal, was about to come home. Now he's in hospital, his head swathed in bandages, drifting in and out of consciousness. The anxiety and grief haunts Josh day and night.
This anxiety and grief affects everyone in the family differently. Larry, at six too young to express his confusion of emotions, begins a systematic demolition of the house and all its contents. Mum takes refuge in the odd drink, and Gran knits till she drops - every jumper worse than the one before!!! And Dexter the dog looks more hangdog than ever.
There's much more to it than grief, though. At least for Josh there is. Josh's frightened at what he's going to see when they take off Dad's bandages. And he's angry. Furious.
Furious that his Dad has been disfigured because of someone else's carelessness. Furious that Mum, in her own hell, is often not there for him. Furious because his brother wrecks everything he finds and he, Josh, gets the blame for not keeping an eye on him.
Furious because, suddenly, all the kids at school seem like silly little children. There's not one he can talk to. All he can do is keep himself to himself, and feel angrier and angrier ...
And then there's the dream ...
That dream - the one that comes night after night - is unbelievably bad. For Josh has seen what fire does to skin. He's seen films of bombs exploding at point-blank range into people's faces. What is below those bandages? What's become of the Dad with the eyes that twinkle and crinkle at the sides when he smiles?
In the dream, Dad's smile is ripped off. His face is distorted, torn, blackened, till it's no longer his Dad any more. It's a monster. A monster mask.
So when those mindless idiots decide to give Josh a fright with a mask, they do more than make him jump out of his skin. They tip him over the edge. All the fear, all the anger he's been storing up, all those weeks, erupts. He has to take revenge. Has to.
Next visit, I need to get a really strong Character B, with a good motive for giving Josh a fright. As I think more and more about it, I have a feeling I don't want this to be a classic 'bullying' story, though. I'd like to have a more 'unusual' motive than simply some kids having a laugh at Squirt's expense.
And I feel Character B should be a girl - partly because of readership, and partly because of how I'm feeling about the story not being the usual 'bullying' scenario.
Also, I want there to be a mystery ... something the reader doesn't know. Or thinks they know, but they're mistaken. Like, the identity of Character B perhaps.
Help! I need my co-authors!
DAY 3 November 4 Mayfield Primary
'O.M.G.', in case you haven't worked it out, stands for 'Oh my God' and, according to the children of Mayfield Primary, is something people actually say. Had I known this when I stepped into Frances McTeir's Primary 7 classroom, I might well have used it. As it was, the artwork on the wall rendered me almost speechless.
Was it just a coincidence that she was reading her class 'Stravaganza: City of Masks'? Was it mere chance that she had provided them with the same 'neutral' masks we had decided would be used to scare Josh? And that one classroom wall was studded with Venetian-style masks made by the children? Or was there some supernatural hocus-pocus at work?
So now we know why 'Character B' decided to scare Josh with a white, neutral mask - a mask she could easily pinch from the teacher's cupboard. Or, more correctly, they could easily pinch, because I've decided there are to be two characters with their claws into poor Josh. Two female characters, each with her own axe to grind.
The introduction to my session with the Mayfield children lasted longer than I'd have liked. There was a lot to show and tell them, because I felt it was important for them to see how I'd arrived at the 'story so far', and a lot had happened, plotwise, in the previous week.
Vicki and I had been exchanging long emails, and had finally gone from killing Josh's Dad - with the resultant feelings of bereavement to be dealt with in the story - to maiming him. Burning his face, to be precise. In a fire, caused by an unexploded bomb, in Iraq. Injury by an Iraqi bomb or mine had been a Newtongrange suggestion, and the more I thought about it, the better I liked it.
It tied in so well to the 'mask' theme too.
When I'd mentioned the book in passing to a librarian friend, she pointed out that medics often cover the faces of burns victims with 'masks'. Intrigued, I googled 'masks' and 'burns', and a few clicks of the mouse-button later, had this iconic picture of Davinia Turrell, the 24-year old victim of the Edgeware Road Tube bombing.
As soon as I saw it, of course, I thought of the neutral mask. And another piece of the jigsaw puzzle dropped into place ... This is what Josh's father looks like as he lies in Intensive Care. The blank, white features of the mask hide a multitude of scars, blisters, stitches, and skin grafts. No one knows what his face has become. For Josh, the 'not-knowing' is almost unbearable.
Where is his dad, the dad with the knock-out smile? The dad with the big brown eyes that always crinkled up when he laughed? When they finally take the bandages off, what will he look like? Will he ever be able to smile and laugh again? Or will his face be shiny and taut? Will his features be distorted out of all recognition?
As I'd already decided, there's a mixture of emotions churning Josh up. He's worried about Dad, like his Mum and Gran are worried. But he's angry too, because this accident shouldn't have happened. Dad should have been home, uninjured, to a hero's welcome.
Not only that, Josh is lonely and isolated, and let-down, because Mum and Gran just aren't there for him. It's all very well for them, downing their pints and smoking their fags till they disappear into oblivion. Leaving him on his own, to deal with his little brother Larry. Larry, the Demolition Man.
Josh can't confide in friends at school either. He knows what his classmates are like - chances are they'll use the situation to make fun of him, make him feel worse than he already does. OK, if he told them they might be sympathetic, but Josh isn't about to risk that. How could he tell them without betraying his feelings, showing his vulnerability? What if - horror of horrors - he actually started to cry? No - much better, much safer, to keep quiet.
Vicki had suggested a psychologist might be trying to help Josh find ways to release his pent-up feelings. We thought that, having failed to get him to talk about those feelings, she might put pressure on him to keep a diary.
And, in the event, perhaps he does. For a while, I toyed with the idea of writing the book as a diary, but Vicki had reservations about the diary form. She felt it might be at odds with the 'thriller' genre, and I could see her point.
The idea of writing in the first person, present tense, however, attracted me. I've never written in that way before, and when I tried a short excerpt, I liked the way it sounded. It reminded me of a 'Video Diary', that very common of forms on reality TV. I could imagine Josh liking the idea of a 'virtual' Video Diary:
I've given old Myers the slip now. I'm down below them all, down in the shadows of the Tub Circuit, where no one can see me. And I've got the mask, bundled up, in my pocket. I feel it digging in. Even through my jeans, it's warm and clammy.
I picture its white wrinkly plastic skin, and its leering smile, and those horrible rotten black teeth. Excitement whistles up my back. The thought of the fright I'm going to give Tiffany and Sandy psyches me up.
Gives me courage to open the gate. The gate with the big 'Do Not Enter' sign on it.
Who cares about a stupid sign? Who cares about anything any more, except getting back on that pair of losers?
Quiet as I can, I'm sliding the bolt along. As I push the gate the old hinges squeal like witches' cats, and for a moment I freeze. Surely someone heard?
But they're all shouting and stamping, and Myers is screaming at them to settle down and listen to the miner.
No one hears him. No one cares.
Now I'm squeezing through. Running up the red metal steps - up towards the banksman's cabin, where the dummy banksmen are standing. Stock-still, like they've stood for decades. Their uniforms are grey with dust.
I'm crouching, waiting, breathing in the musty smell of those dust-covered dummies. Watching the coal tubs - the dummy coal tubs that never move - and waiting for Tiffany and Sandy to come along.
Tiffany and Sandy, the biggest dummies of all ...
After filling the Mayfield children in on all these thoughts, I asked for theirs. Thoughts, particularly, about why the two girls who were soon to be created wanted to torment Josh in this cruel way. There were some extremely interesting ideas.
Maybe the girls were simply out-and-out bullies. They'd discovered what had happened to Josh's dad, and just wanted to see 'Squirt' suffer. Somehow, though, the idea of bullying simply for the hell of it was neither very plausible nor very attractive. I thought it also sounded dangerously like a stereotypical 'bullying story'.
I probed more deeply, and the children rose to the challenge. Perhaps Josh knew something about the girls that he was supposed to have kept to himself, but hadn't. Maybe he'd seen them stealing and had told the teacher, so now they were out to get him? Maybe they'd pretended to be well-off, and he knew they were poor, and had spilled the beans?
Or perhaps, I suggested, Josh wasn't squeaky-clean himself. Perhaps he had pinched money from the girls, or from someone else, and they were taking revenge.
Unable to decide, we put 'motive' on the back burner and discussed the girls' personalities instead. The majority verdict was that one was 'a bully' and the other was 'Miss Goody-Two-Shoes'. Which begged the question, why would Miss G.T.C. go along with the bully? Was she the victim of bullying too? If she didn't do what she was told, would her life be made miserable?
Did she actually like Josh? Had Josh done something to offend her?
At this point the children, mostly in pairs, drew and wrote about the two characters. At Newtongrange, I had found this part of the session the most valuable. I'd had a group of 30, drawn from two classes, and we used a classroom both for the discussion and the drawing/writing. At Mayfield, however, the initial discussion with the two Primary 7 classes was in the Parents' Room, and then the children went to their two separate classrooms to write. This, combined with the fact I'd talked too much initially, limited the time for the one-to-one chatting. That said, the workshop session yielded some great ideas, and I just wished I'd had a bit longer.
Apart from the children's brilliant observations, I liked an idea that came from Mandy Richardson, one of the teachers. She wondered whether Josh would worry whether he'd actually be able to love his 'new' Dad. It underlined thoughts Vicki and I had talked about - when appearance changes, does personality also change? Or seem to, because our reactions to the appearance alter?
So, here is the children's work that most inspired me and contributed to the two dastardly female characters, Tiffany and Sandy:
Time to go to Stobhill Primary, to sort out our setting ...
DAY 4 November Stobhill Primary
Kieran X 2
The sound of twenty Primary 5/6 children chewing mouthwash is oddly soothing. It's a bit like waves lapping on a shore. And, following hot on the heels of the Armistice Day minute silence, it provided quite a transcendental start to the fourth session.
Which was good because, to begin with, the session was rather fraught. The class teacher had just phoned in sick, and her relief had arrived minutes before me. Also, the dreaded Interactive Whiteboard proved incompatible with my laptop, and I hadn't had the foresight to put my precious video clips onto a memory stick.
The problems quickly washed away, though, when the children - about 20 Primary 4's and 5's - settled down at my feet. As soon as I explained our brief I could sense their attention, and when I showed them Alyssa's wonderful picture of Josh, and told them the 'story so far', the air fairly tingled with excitement.
This session was hugely important. It was the one in which I intended to discuss 'setting', and I really wanted the children to get down to descriptive writing as soon as possible. I wanted that 'one-to-one' situation too, where I could talk more privately with some of them. But, as the clock's hands moved inexorably towards noon, I realised that just wasn't going to happen. The 'story so far' took ages to tell, and I didn't feel I could leave anything out. And everything I said, and every visual I showed, evoked a lengthy response from these enthusiastic and creative children.
After discussing the personalities and motives of the main characters, I showed the photo of Davinia Turrell in her burns mask and, alongside, someone wearing the white 'neutral' mask. We spent some time exploring just how Tiffany and Sandy might choose to do the 'scaring', and one suggestion was that they got hold of Josh's jacket and pretended one of them was him. This led on to the idea of some kind of 'conversation' going on between 'Josh' and his 'dad'. It was an intriguing idea, and one I hadn't thought of.
We also discussed why masks are scary, and how important eyes are, because they are the one 'living' thing seen - the one part that can still give clues about the feelings of the wearer. By narrowing our eyes, could we actually bring some 'expression' to a lifeless piece of white plastic?
Then I showed the video clips, pointing out the lay-out of the Tub Circuit room. Like me, the children found the lifelike 'dummies' very sinister, and talk revolved round how Josh might get himself into one of the cabins and stand beside them. The cabin door has a large padlock, and we spent a huge amount of time trying to figure out how on earth Josh would force an entry.
Although many of the suggestions were obviously implausible or impossible, ('One of the miners had dropped the key, and Josh found it') this discussion was very valuable. Writers are always wary of using the 'coincidence' that demands too much suspension of disbelief. The ability to stay within the bounds of possibility is a learned skill, and if a writer does decide to use a coincidence, s/he will set up that coincidence very, very carefully. By appealing to the children's own sensibilities as readers ('Would you really swallow that???') I hope I demonstrated how careful writers have to be.
Similarly, there is a skill in recognising what is suitable, and what is not. Writers constantly examine their ideas in the light of 'readership' and 'publishers' requirements'. They are rarely entirely free of restrictions. The idea of Josh's dad's belongings being sent home from Iraq, and Josh getting hold of his gun, bullets, and silencer and using these to break open the padlock could no doubt work - in a different book. As I explained, Barrington Stoke would be unlikely to condone that level of implied violence in a book for 9-13 year old children. Nor would they like a gun being smuggled into a Primary school ...
As always happens in discussions, one or two children stood out; and in this male-dominated class, it was two 'Keiran/Kierans' who particularly shone. Their observations were so mature and thoughtful that I wished I could have recorded them.
Keiran Wagley, when shown the photo of Davinia Turrell, the victim of the Tube bombing, knew details of the number of casualties, and wanted to discuss the motives of the bombers. Kieran, looking at photos of the roof of the Mining Museum where flocks of pigeons roost, was able to tell us exactly how many animals were awarded war medals for bravery. And when I asked them what kind of weather they thought there should be, on the fateful day Josh's class goes to the Mining Museum, Keiran had no hesitation in saying it would be 'thundery, with grey clouds overhead', to match Josh's murderous mood.
Like all the sessions, though, this one taught me a lesson. At around 11.50 a.m. I realised I had made two mistakes. Firstly, I had allowed the discussion to go on far too long and secondly, in expecting the children to think about both plot and setting, I had made the task too complex. When the relief teacher suggested that we leave the writing for the children to do that afternoon, I agreed. Though in retrospect, I'm pretty sure I would have got more detailed work if I had had the chance to discuss the children's thoughts with them as they wrote.
There were several examples of powerful, thoughtful writing, however, which really helped me when I came to write the book:
Georgia Lawrence wrote this powerful piece in response to the photo of the gantry leading into the Mining Museum:
It just reminded me of the terrible place, the walkway to see my father in pain. I can just see his eyes in my head, and the mask. When he has the mask on all you can see is his eyes full of pain. I can just imagine walking through the double doors and he's lying there in pain, in his hospital bed. As we walked the sound of our classes' shoes squeaking all around me, the wet greasy floor with moss and rust in the corners of the walls. As we get closer the more my fear of seeing my dad got worse and worse and worse.
Keiran Wagley, looking at the photo of the banksman's cabin, wrote:
The antique rusty red metal bars looked like they could collapse at any minute and kill. The cobwebs hang spookily around the building's ceiling. The green cabin looked very death-defying.
Lisa Robertson wrote Josh's thoughts as he waited at the museum entrance:
There was this man that was telling us a load of rubbish. I could not be bothered - all I wanted to do was teach Sandy and Tiffany a lesson. The sky was really cloudy. The sun was not out at all. What a silly man - he was keeping us outside in the cold.
Andrew Guild described the brickwork with its chipped white paint:
The bright red looked like blood from someone. The tiles were chipped and looked like a man putting his hands out for something.
And Lauren Miller, looking at the shaft inspection cage, wrote:
I was imagining there was a dead body in the shaft. I was looking around all I could see was shadows of my dad in a burn mask. I thought he was talking to me, saying they had won the war. Tiffany shook me and sneered, "Why are you staring into space?" I never answered her but in my head I said, 'You won't be saying that soon, girl.'
In the meantime, the mask designs have arrived from Lawfield. I've chosen the two I find scariest, and they will form the basis for the next session, at Moorfoot. This time, though, I'm determined to learn from my mistakes and keep the introduction as short as possible. So I've written a 'Josh's diary' to read to the children.
And I think ... maybe ... I've actually written Chapter 1. Because, although we had misgivings about the diary form in the context of a 'thriller', I think it might just work. We'll see what Vicki thinks.
DAY 5 November 18 Moorfoot Primary
Diaries and Descriptions
I felt 'clearer' today as I drove to Moorfoot Primary for my session with Primary 6/7. Unburdened, somehow. Compared to my last visit, when I felt weighed down by the prospect of telling the 'story so far', then examining video footage and countless photographs, and finally - hopefully - eliciting plot details and descriptions of setting, today I hoped I'd got my act together.
First of all, I had given Josh the job of telling his story, in diary form, and I was confident that his words - along with Alyssa's picture - would convey not only his 'back story', but his personality, his fears, and his seething whirlpool of emotions. And all in less than a thousand words!
Then, I had sifted through Lawfield's beautiful masks and chosen two possibles for Josh to use in his revenge on Tiffany and Sandy. I'd pasted an image of each mask at the top of A4 lined paper, and intended to give these to the children to describe. And I was determined to give them as much guidance as I could, and plenty of time, for that description! As 'guidance', I'd written a 'modelling' passage - my own description of this utterly gorgeous creation by Danniella Roes Rowley:
This mask has a white face and blue hair. I think the hair looks as though it would sway to and fro in the wind. It reminds me of seaweed.
The mask has a green triangle on its forehead, with pink flowers inside. It's like a decoration, and it makes it look pretty. The eyes are very pretty too. They are pink and orange, and surrounded by what looks like pink flower petals.
The lips are pink, and they have a multicoloured shape hanging down from them, which reminds me of a crest of bird's feathers. The mask has big golden horns, like bulls' horns, but somehow I don't think these horns look dangerous.
When the mask looks at me, I don't feel at all frightened. It doesn't scare me at all. In fact, I think it looks kind and gentle, and perhaps a little sad. Perhaps it's lonely.
My description began with the main features of the mask, including some comparisons to make it more vivid, and ended with a paragraph about the emotions the mask seemed to convey, and the feelings it gave me. This was - approximately - the pattern I suggested the children follow in their descriptions.
First, I read Josh's first diary entry to the class. As I read, the silence was deafening. You could, literally, have heard a pin drop. It was a little unnerving, because I wondered if the content was too powerful. But when I finished, everyone still looked quite intact. And when I produced the images of the masks, I sensed a real motivation to get on with the job in hand.
Then, when I was reading my own mask description, I saw one of the girls nudge her neighbour and whisper 'Similes!'. Then I really knew I was on to a good thing!
With a good half-hour left to do our writing, things were as relaxed as I'd hoped they would be. And with two teachers and myself to encourage, discuss, and cajole, the air was soon buzzing with ideas. We even (wonders will never cease!) had time for a plenary session, in which we shared some of our efforts and took a vote on which mask we thought Josh should use. Here they are - Lewis Sutherland's magnificent 'Waspy', and Cameron Chisholm's masterful 'blue-faced, fiery-haired monster':
The vote was almost unanimously in favour of Cameron's mask, and I must admit, I was a bit miffed. I'd liked 'Waspy' and would probably have chosen it!
So, here are excerpts from descriptions of each of the masks, that particularly fired my imagination:
Kirsten Dryburgh and Afton Street thought Waspy had 'antennae like black lightning with lightbulbs at the end', 'skin like a wasp' and 'eyes like black jacks'. 'If I seen this mask', they wrote, 'the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up on end.'
'I would be frozen to the spot,' Kirsten went on. 'But,' she added somewhat defensively, 'even the fearless Afton Street would be frozen to the spot.'
Olivia Gooch voiced the opinions of several of her classmates when she wrote, 'The eyes are upsetting, and they are kind of cute, like they could lead you into a trap.'
Eilidh and Samantha - masters of understatement - decided 'It looks like a fairly fearless wasp. The teeth look like razer sharp teeth.'
'It looks like a predator,' wrote Steven Moray, 'that would eat anything it sees or hears'.
And finally, Eilidh Hudson and Raakshaana Gnanamurali wrote: 'The mouth reminds us of a black hole because it looks neverending'. They went on, 'If I met this being, I would not move because the eyes look like they would hypnotise you to the spot. The antennas look like they will sting you with poison. 'If I saw that mask in the dark,' they concluded, 'I would definitely jump out of my skin because of the colours and the teeth.'
The 'star team' of Kirsten Dryburgh and Afton Street wrote a most lyrical piece about Cameron's mask. It reads like a poem:
hair like flames swirling in a bonfire
skin blue like the water in the sea
ears like a sharp trowel
eyes like streams of blood
fangs like the horns of a bull that has just stabbed somebody in the chest
a mouth like a pink tunnel that never ends
a chin like an elf ear
It was Kirsten who, at the end of the description, came up with the beautiful sentence 'we have a conjoined fear and he's scared of me'. I was intrigued by the 'conjoined fear'. According to Kirsten, however, J K Rowling got there first. Pity!
Moray Steven felt that if its eyes stared right at him they would 'burn two holes right through my flesh and bones'. Ewan Bruce and Paul Wilson said it had 'daunting eyes', and Eilidh and Samantha described it as a 'demon' who could 'kill anything it wanted'.
Although no one wrote this down, we had various discussions about stings, venom and paralysis. The idea also came through that perhaps the mask was as frightened as it was frightening, and this made me think about the power of masks as a 'mirror' of emotion. Does a mask that looks scared, scare us? Does an angry mask transmit its anger? Does a white, expressionless mask drain us of emotion?
The whole Moorfoot experience underlined the importance of peaceful, unhurried writing and plenty of time to discuss ideas and pass these ideas to and fro. Ideas are organic, and it's wonderful to see them grow, evolve, change, and connect.
On my next - and, incredibly my last - visit, I need once more to find a way to focus on one discreet, manageable writing task for the children. I think I'm going to try to get them to write down Josh's mask nightmare. At this point, though, there seem to be a lot of 'loose ends'; but perhaps tying these up is my job!
DAY 6 November 25 Gorebridge Primary
Dreams and Nightmares
As if in anticipation of the forthcoming workshop, getting into Gorebridge Primary was an absolute nightmare! Every road I turned into was a dead-end, and every gate I tried was padlocked. It was the classic stuff of nightmares - seeing the school playground, hearing the bell b-r-r-r-ringing the children back to class, knowing I was going to be late ... but not being able to find my way in.
But when, after a frantic phone call to the school, I did find the entrance, the nightmare was well worth it. Primary 5/6 really was every writer's dream!
We began by talking about dreams and nightmares - the weird ways reality mixes with fantasy; the odd juxtapositions of characters and places; the exaggeration of everyday fears and worries to terrifying proportions; the dreadful feeling of wanting to shout for help, and no sound coming. The strangeness of time.
It wasn't all scary either. There was 'wish-fulfilment' too. 'When my grandma died,' one of the boys told us, 'I dreamt she was just playing a joke, and that she was really still alive.'
Waking from one of those dreams leaves us with a sad, empty feeling, and we wish they had been real. It's quite different from waking out of a nightmare and realising, with relief, that it wasn't real after all.
On this, my last 'preliminary' visit, I wanted the children to write the nightmare Josh has after Tiffany and Sandy's cruel trick sends his bottled-up feelings sky-high, and they didn't half fulfill their brief!
But I got far, far more than nightmares from Gorebridge. Despite being very young, this class, I quickly discovered, was exceptional. I know one shouldn't have favourites, but I have seldom, in all the years I've been working with children, been with a class that was so focussed, so imaginative, so candid. So literary.
The question of how the bullies actually play the trick on Josh had been bothering me for weeks. We'd had several suggestions and one - that they would come along the corridor singing - I'd felt had potential. But I wasn't entirely happy with it. For one thing, the 'joke' happens in school, so the bullies can't draw too much attention to themselves. For another, I'd begun to think it lacked subtlety. So I decided to ask Primary 5/6 for their thoughts, and sure enough, as they talked, the scene finally unfolded in stark, startlingly white, clarity:
In Gorebridge, all the classrooms, store cupboards, etc, branch off one extremely long main corridor. That 'endless' corridor echoes the hospital corridor, and the gantry leading to the mining museum. As Josh leaves his classroom on the fateful day, a door opens and one girl appears, silently, before him, wearing a white, neutral mask.
Perhaps she doesn't need to say anything. Perhaps the sight of the mask is enough. For in that moment Josh realises that his secret is out. Tiffany and Sandy know about Dad. Everyone, presumably, knows.
Horrified beyond words, he brushes past the masked figure and hurries on. But as he draws level with the store cupboard, its door swings open and another masked figure appears. Maybe this time there's a low voice - Dad's voice - saying his name. Moaning. Appealing to him for help ...?
Beside himself with fear and fury, sick to his stomach, Josh reels round and runs back the way he came. But his way is barred once more by a white mask. Then there's another, joining the first, and then they're reeling around, in some awful, ghoulish dance. It seems as though the whole school is filled with taunting, jeering masks.
The view of distant hills you get from Primary 5/6's classroom is to die for. It has to be Josh's classroom. The morning of the 'joke', it snowed. Everything - sky, ground, hills - was white: white, like the hospital walls, white, like the sheets of his father's bed, white, like the mask his father wears. A white-out.
Josh, stupefied, has only one thought in his head. Escape. Blinded by the memory of all that awful, deathly white, he runs wildly along the corridor, through the swing doors, past the office window, and out. As he races over the snowy concrete towards the school steps, he slips and comes crashing down. Lies on his back in the snow, looks sightlessly up at the white sky. Snowflakes slowly cover his face in a cold, wet mask ....
The incident haunts Josh for the rest of the day. That night he has a nightmare, filled with weird, terrifying images of white masks, hospitals, scars and sad eyes, mixed crazily in with Dexter, and Larry the Destroyer. And those Primary 5/6 children, working mainly in pairs, went about the task of writing that nightmare with gusto!
During this project, when I've come home with children's work, I've usually sifted through it and laid aside the dozen or so most inspiring pieces. Then I've sifted again, before reproducing the 'best bits'. Gorebridge's work, however, defies sifting. Every single piece of 'nightmare' writing contained something unique. It's impossible to make a selection, but here are a few examples of the Gorebridge Genius:
In Craig Reid and William Aitken's nightmare, Josh sees Tiffany and Sandy with a picture of Dad's face with his mask on. As they run away down the corridor, Larry appears, wearing a white mask. He rips the picture to pieces. As the pieces re-form, you can see Dad's face, covered in scars. Their nightmare ends with these evocative words:
The bright stars at night turned to white masks. The moon turned into Dad's face, with all the marks on it. I got very angry. I got so angry that I turned over and I woke up. I was very, very angry.
Calum Fowler and Aldan Walters captured Josh's feelings well in their piece:
I got up in a corridor of pure whiteness. I heard my dad's voice it sounded spookey. I was so angry. I chased the voice. I heard it through the door and my spine tingled. I slowly opened a creaking door. I was so frightened. I kicked the door open in anger.
John and Keiran described Josh seeing a Dad who is 'too wee'. Josh says 'This can't be happening. I will get my own back on them.'
Chloe Cooper and Sarah Hiddlestone's nightmare reads just like the transcript from a horror film:
I was walking in the corridor. Flash! goes a torch. My dad wheeled on his electric wheelchair past the endless corridor. I was terrified. I saw my dad without the white scary mask. In comes Larry, tearing the mask that was my dad's covering mask for his burned face. Tiffany and Sandy walked in behind him, mysteriously, with the white plain scary masks. Then I saw a glimpse of someone's face. It was black, disfigured and scary to see going past your head, and Dexter with him, wagging his tail from side to side. I tried to shout 'Dexter!' but I couldn't. I was frightened and ran outside the school. Then I discovered that Tiffany and Sandy were there, behind me, and I woke up. Scared.
Mikey Campbell Sneddon's very detailed nightmare has a hint of optimism at its end. It echoes the 'wish-fulfilment' idea we discussed, and I really liked it:
My nightmare was about me walking thru an endless black and white corridor with all the burn masks my dad is wearing. When I turn the corner there is a strange figure standing in front of me with the burn mask on their face. It reminded me so much of my dad. Then I run as fast as I can, trying to get away from the strange figure. I look over my shoulder and in the spot where the figure is standing is my dog Dexter. (Then) a giant burn mask pops out of the black wall. Once again I run as fast as I can, Then I stop. I am surrounded by burn masks. Suddenly I have a flashback to all the good times I had with my dad right up to when he got blown up. Then I woke up. I was really angry.
Abigail Miller and Eleanor Scott captured the disjointed and exaggerated nature of dreams, and their last sentence couldn't be more 'in character' with our 'angry young man': I was walking down the dark, gloomy corridor. I was all alone, at least I thought I was. The corridor was endless and so silent. Just then I heard something beside me. I turned round quickly with fear. Right there before my eyes there stood a girl in a white mask just like Dad's. I was shaking with fear as I turned around again. There was another mask, just like the other one, and they were both like Dad's. My heart was pounding. I felt like I was going to explode with anger. That accident should never have happened to Dad. Suddenly I was outside. Everything, even my clothes, was white. The girls took their masks off. The girls were Sandy and Tiffany. I woke up with so much anger boiling up inside of me. I nearly broke my foot by kicking my bed.
And finally, Chloe Cocking and Lucy Galbraith came up with a list of suggestions for a 'saying' of Dad's - something he always used to tell Josh before he went off to fight. My favourites were 'Follow your heart' and 'If you think you can, you can do it.'
I could have stayed with Primary 5/6 all day, but lunchtime came around all too soon. Before it, we did manage to have a short talk about possible titles for our book, though. And a possible conclusion.
We wondered about 'The Mask' as a title - though perhaps it's a bit too non-specific. We also wondered about 'White-out'.
As for the ending - would Josh eventually see his father without the mask? Most of the children felt the answer should be 'yes' - that revealing the extent of Dad's disfigurement would be the most satisfying ending.
I'm not sure, though. In all our discussions, I feel what's emerging over and over again is the idea that appearances are 'superficial', and a little untrustworthy too - for we all wear 'masks' that hide our inner feelings.
It's what's inside that counts, and Chloe and Lucy's 'Follow your heart' may be the book's ultimate message. The appearance of our hearts isn't important. It's the strength of what's inside them that is.
I have a feeling the book will end with a new-found strength in both Josh and his dad. Because of what happens in the coal mine, Josh feels abler to cope with the future, however uncertain. And Dad, seeing the change in Josh, can stop worrying about him, and concentrate on recovering. Together, I think, they'll adjust to whatever is underneath that burns mask ...
Those six visits were my 'inspiration-gathering' ones. There were six more to come, during which I would edit the chapters I had written with the children.
I did write the book as a diary, and I found it the best way to tell this intimate story. As far as Josh was concerned, the diary was for his eyes only - and, most importantly, the eyes of Carol-Anne his counsellor. To begin with, it's a duty - a way of keeping Carol-Anne happy. But, despite Josh's misgivings about it, this diary-keeping becomes therapeutic.
And, reflecting my own journal, I wrote the diary in six 'days' so that each school would have its own 'day' to edit. I was incredibly chuffed when it actually worked out just right!
I decided not to carry on with the journal on the editing visits though. Briefly, there were great ones, good ones, and one downright disasterous one. There were visits where teachers and children had read and discussed their chapter in advance, and had very thoughtful - sometimes very critical - things to say.
And, just as writers do when working with a professional editor, I found myself sometimes challenging suggestions for change, and winning round my critics, and sometimes seeing their point of view and willingly altering my text.
Of particular help was the children's guidance on language, especially dialogue. I found myself continually asking, 'Would you say that?' And although some of the children's vocabulary was subsequently modified by Vicki and the Barrington Stoke consultants because it was too regional, much also remained.
On those editing visits I also talked to the children about book jacket designs, showing them some of my own covers and demonstrating the process writer, designer and illustrator go through to arrive at a final, book-selling, product. Each class then designed their own book jackets for Fire Mask, and sent them to me. The winning design would be used by the illustrator as a basis for his cover.
Gradually I managed to whittle the children's entries down to a final selection, and for a while this is what my office floor looked like ...
The overall winner - Rebecca Morgan - was eventually chosen by Barrington Stoke, and at a lovely event in the Scottish Mining Museum at Newtongrange she and the runners-up were presented with their prizes. The Fire Mask cake was cut, and its success toasted in lemonade!
I gained an enormous amount from the Fire Mask project. Even the choice of the mask - not my choice! - was so pivotal to the whole feeling (and title) of the book. Left to my own devices, I'd have chosen a black-and-yellow 'wasp' mask, and there would probably not have been the cathartic scene where Josh 'becomes' the fire of his mask.
But there was something much, much more. Alongside characters, plotline, and vocabulary, I gained something less tangible: that feeling of 'co-ownership', of working together, of sharing fears and secrets and passions. And the utter satisfaction of teaching writing in the most true-to-life way there can possibly be. After the project ended, I received some beautiful letters from some of the children. The overwhelming feeling that came from these letters was how surprised they had been that their suggestions were actually listened to and used. That they really had shaped a real book. If those Midlothian children had had expectations of the project at all these were, I think, expectations of lip-service.
What they got was genuine co-authorship.
Franzeska G Ewart 2009