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Whilst studying architecture I did some weird things. I dressed up as a clown. I interviewed, photographed and filmed a food vendor in Camden Market. I posed as a waiter trying to serve wine and pasta with an inverted periscope attached to my face. I trespassed through a hospital (actually I did a hell of a lot of trespassing as an architectural student). Carrying chairs into a forest and to the top of a hill. The list goes on. 

One day, in my second year, I found myself down in Hastings, a beach town east of Brighton. I forget why, but I purchased fish guts from a fishermen to encourage the (intimidatingly large) seagulls in the area, then I chased them away. I live on an island and thought I had a good grasp on seagull behaviour and mentality, but the seagulls in Hastings are terrifying. There are hundreds of them everywhere, they are huge, and they eat anything and everything.

seagull image 5I don’t like seagulls. No, I’m not scared of them. I just think they’re great big bastards (I’d also recently watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds which may have had some influence). So whatever the project, or design brief was for our trip to Hastings, I reckon I used the location as a chance for revenge. Seagulls love to swoop down on unsuspecting beach-goers and grab their chips and ice creams, so I thought I’d set a trap involving bread crumbs and fish guts, before chasing them away.

seagulls2I set down seagull treats at one metre intervals from a bench in Hastings. After waiting for enough seagulls to show interest, I would then jump up and chase them away. It was cathartic, even if I did get a lot of strange looks from the locals (and a few cheers from the onlooking fishermen and fishmongers). I had some course mates photograph and film the event, without really knowing what I would do with it.

seagulls3

seagull2

I filmed all of this from two angles, one camera on the bench and one from the side. I took freeze frames and drew over stills that I then imported into Photoshop to play around with.

seagulls1

 

seagull1

I ended up turning this sequence of events into a ‘flipbook’, where I first set down the seagull snacks, then waited for the seagulls to arrive before springing up and chasing them away.

I look back at a lot of the weird stuff I did at university and struggle to remember exactly what it was all for at the time. There were always reasons, often loosely connected and stretching. I don’t study architecture now or have any desire to work in the field, and I will always question whether those years were worth it, whether I would make different choices if I could, and what those choices would have been. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say “it was dull”.

The process begins. Shit!

The process begins. Shit!

Yeah that’s right. The name of my novel is currently “TBC”. I can’t even think of a decent working title yet.

Some of my recent posts (The Shark, The Boy: Extract 1-3) have contained short passages of writing which I aim to build upon and write a short story/novel. I haven’t got very far. At a guess I’ve written about 5000 words. Recently though I had a bit of a breakthrough in regards to the world I was trying to create and describe. It was heading towards a very generic apocalyptic setting, when in reality the changes to the ‘world-as-we-know-it’ are subtle, but can still affect my characters in tremendous ways.

I’m having ideas all the time whether it be scenes or characters or dialogue. Something might come to me as I’m falling asleep, in the shower, driving to work, taking a piss. But generally, progress has been slow. I try to dedicate a few hours a week to purely write, but it can be difficult to stick to that.

I’m finding the use of my Pinterest pretty helpful. I surf through hundreds of photos, and if one stands out, I’ll save it to pin boards that are based on certain aspects of the story. For example, the boy himself, or the warehouse, or the suburbs, or abandoned buildings. I’m building up a library of images to help bring the story to life in front of me, and in turn I hope this can aid and inspire my writing.

What I’ve discovered is that every new book I read, I learn something more about my own writing. I know what I like reading, which methods are advantageous in certain situations. So while I have perhaps the first 10% of the book written (as I’ve said, in a very rough first draft form) I’m almost holding back, wanting to read as many books as I can in the coming months. This isn’t because I’m lacking ideas or looking for inspiration for certain characters; I want my writing to be the best it can be and learning from other great writers is one step to achieving that.

This month I finished Ready Player One, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep and Lord Of The Flies. Next on my list for the end of March and April are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and McCarthy’s The Road. I can’t wait.

I’m not under the impression (or delusional enough) that this first novel I write will be a huge hit. I’ve seen and heard comments and opinions stating that the first major piece of writing you do will be a piece of shit. I may look back in ten years and be completely embarrassed by this. But I want to give this my all. I think the basis of the story I want to tell has the makings of a good book. If I can write it in a way that does justice to myself and my ideas, I’ll be happy.

So while it’s daunting to think that at the end of the year I could have a finished story, I know it’s a long way off. I’m eager and enthusiastic to achieve this, a goal I wasn’t aware I wanted a few months ago has become a huge ambition that I’m determined to finish – regardless of the final outcome.

I’m very new to this. I haven’t written stories since I was in school, and at university the only extended writing I’ve done recently was a handful of essays and a dissertation. But while they have a more rigid structure, I can be afforded a lot more freedom here. And that’s both liberating and terrifying, to be able to go in literally any direction I want.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, written by sci-fi maestro Philip K. Dick, was the inspiration behind the film Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1982.

Blade Runner is a favourite of mine – a futuristic noir classic, but I want to discuss the novel it was based on. The film is relatively faithful to the book in terms of overall plot but I found the tone to be vastly different.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep introduces us to Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter operating in North California on an Earth that has been ravaged by nuclear war, nearly extinct of all live animals and left behind by the majority of humanity, who have begun to colonise on Mars and beyond. Rick Deckard hunts androids who illegally pose as humans and must ‘retire’ them (as you cannot kill what is not alive).

Animals are the ultimate status symbol – well live animals anyway. To keep and own a live animal is an important societal need. World War Terminus has caused extinction in a huge percentage of animals, and now the humans who remain on earth spend their credits on live animals…or if they can’t afford them, the cheaper electric variety. In the past Deckard owned a live sheep but chose to replace it with an synthetic sheep when it died of tetanus. When he reveals this to his neighbour there is a sense of pity and awkwardness. His neighbour promises not to reveal the truth to anyone, such is the shame of owning a synthetic animal.

The androids Rick must hunt over the course of the novel are the most advanced robots ever created and their intelligence and likeness to humans is eerily close. The Nexus-6 brain module is a technical accomplishment that the creators The Rosen Association are immensely proud of. So much so that they boast their androids are near indistinguishable for humans. Deckard must hunt down and destroy six of these Nexus-6 models who have escaped their colony on Mars and are classed as fugitives.

His only method of identifying these androids is by asking the suspect a series of questions aimed to measure a person’s empathy, the Voigt-Kampff test. Various scenarios are put to the suspect to test their reactions, more specifically their empathic responses as the androids have no sense of empathy.

Meanwhile, a second strand of narration is viewed through the eyes of John Isidore, who is deemed special, derogatively called a ‘chickenhead’, and ultimately viewed as below human life as the vast amount of radioactive dust on the Earth has caused his intelligence to diminish (along with thousands of other ‘specials’). He lives alone in an empty apartment building covered in ‘kipple’ and has little outside contact outside of his job as a driver. As a special with sub-par IQ he is treated with disdain by all other humans who have not yet been genetically damaged.

When one of the fugitive androids Pris Stratton moves into an apartment below his he attempts to befriend her. She is eventually joined by Roy and Irmgard Baty, husband and wife within the group of fugitive androids. Isidore aids them due to the involvement and importance he feels when they include him in their plan to stop Deckard, despite treating him with as little respect as other humans do.
Electric Sheep
Philip K. Dick’s novel contains several interesting themes, one of which seems to be humanity’s struggle for relevance; those people who have been left behind and have to exist on this dying Earth. I want to talk briefly about Mercerism, a new religion based on the life and struggles of Wilbur Mercer. All over Earth and in the space colonies, empathy boxes are used for followers of Mercerism to connect with each other, to share their emotions together. Empathy, compassion and community spirit are the core beliefs of Mercerism, and so both joy and pain are shared collectively in a kind of hallucination that all believers can share together.

Opposing Mercerism is Buster Friendly, a talkshow android who dominates the television with his chatshows, guests and interviews. An upbeat, colourful, chatty distraction from the real world, Isidore notices that the world seems much more lonely when the television is off. This is because Buster Friendly gives an illusion of friendship but no more; after all, it is just a television show. Towards the end of the novel, Buster Friendly announces

“We may never know [who has spawned this hoax]. Nor can we fathom the peculiar purpose behind this swindle. Yes, folks, swindle. Mercerism is a swindle!”

Mercerism is based on a lie; Mercer is portrayed by a down and out actor, and the ‘hallucinations’ the users share were recorded years ago. Buster Friendly and the androids seem to relish this expose, that humans have been deceived into following a phoney. But what Buster Friendly doesn’t realise is that even if Mercerism is a ‘swindle’, the effect it has on people is real. It causes empathy, while the androids who are devoted to Friendly’s type of religion are pulling legs off spiders.

So it is true that Mercerism is fake, but does it matter who Mercer is or whether he even exists? For the likes of Rick, his wife Iran and Isidore, the ideals of Mercerism still stand because they are believed in.

The whole novel boils down to the emotion of empathy. Deckard initially feels no guilt in performing his job as a bounty hunter as he believes that androids are incapable of true human emotion and therefore do not deserve a status on par with humans. But if the androids cannot feel empathy why does Roy Baty scream in anguish when Deckard shoots his wife Irmgard through the door of their apartment?

And so the lines are blurred. Androids are capable of empathetic feeling with each other…and humans are capable of a loss of empathy. Fellow bounty hunter Phil Resch has no empathy at all. He enjoys killing androids for the sake of it, and thus can perform his job easily.

“If I test out android,” Phil Resch prattled, “you will undergo renewed faith in the human race. But since it’s not going to work out that way, I suggest you begin framing an ideology which will account for-”

If this is the case (and Deckard seems to realise that it is) then it makes his job that much harder, leading to his existential crisis towards the end of the novel. Humans are meant to feel empathy, something that androids cannot do. But they are not meant to feel empathy for androids, despite the fact that they are not mere machines but have emotions and are made from living tissue.

“These electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”

After Rick’s epiphany and fusion with Mercer, he has renewed empathy with all forms of life; he is able to see value in the androids version of a life, and even the ‘paltry’ life of a mechanical toad he found, that he had believed was real. Rick states that while he is disappointed that the toad is not real, he prefers to know it is fake rather than believing it to be a live creature. Just one day hunting these ‘androids’ has completely changed his idea of empathy and compassion and is now similar to Isidore in this respect. Does this make them both chickenheads?

Outside of the various messages which could be discussed in much greater depth, I found the Dick’s writing style through the book to be fantastically simple. We switch from tense, slow and steady scenes to fast paced dialogue and laser tube showdowns. The perspective occasionally shifts between Deckard and Isidore, two protagonists with differing views and levels of intelligence but both were fascinating to me as a reader. We are introduced to so many themes and ways of life that are now the norm in this future, but Dick manages to make them real and understandable.

To end the novel (and this post), Deckard collapses into bed exhausted at his physical and mental battle throughout the day. He dials the 670 setting into the Penfield mood enhancer; the setting for long deserved peace. Yet he doesn’t naturally feel, or feel he deserves, this mood. If our moods and emotions can be affected and manipulated by electrical currents, how different are we to the androids?

I’ve set up a tumblr.

I wanted another blog which displays more visual images, something I can perhaps take a bit less seriously than this one (yeah because this blog is so serious). With this blog, I like to take care and effort before putting posts up, and this can lead to days and weeks without posts. This tumblr will allow me to post content at a quicker rate. I’m planning to use it for work I’ve done previously, work i’m doing now but mostly anything that inspires me or I find that motivates me.

The nature of tumblr is much more visual with photographs, videos, gifs and art being shared, liked and reblogged. I feel that my wordy, more analytical posts on wordpress and the more artistic, design based posts I will be liking and reblogging on tumblr are best kept separate. There will be times where something I’ve posted on wordpress I will also share on tumblr (and vice versa), if I feel it’s relevant or I’m really happy with it. Or (more likely) if content is starting to dry up on this page, which has happened in the past.

So generally the tumblr will keep a steady stream of more graphical content, separate from this blog.

A conceptual model for a third year architecture project, set in and around Guy's Hospital in London Bridge.

A conceptual model for a third year architecture project, set in and around Guy’s Hospital in London Bridge.

I’ve also started using Pinterest again. The aim is to keep these sites (both tumblr and Pinterest) as active, if not more so, than this blog, pinning and reblogging anything I find remotely interesting or useful to me.

I didn’t really get the point of Pinterest, but I’ve given it another chance and it’s actually pretty useful. You can search for any images and if you like them, you can pin them to keep them saved and available for your friends and followers to view. You can then start building up pinboards where all pinned images share a common theme. For example I’ve got boards for various artwork, digital media, graphic design etc. Simon Stahlenberg is an artist whose work caught my eye a few months back and has wonderfully captured the present day with brushes of alien technology in Corel Painter.

I want to keep posts on this blog meaningful. The odd update every now and then is fine, but I want most of the content here to be detailed and worthwhile. tumblr and Pinterest on the other hand are much quicker ways to show off things you think are pretty cool or that inspire you. There may even be some original content I’ll share here and repost on tumblr. I’ve added links to the sites mentioned in this post in the blogroll menu on the right of this blog.

the boy

He had heard some people refer to it as the nether zone, others named it the grey belt. Some simply called it the wasteland. There was so much space in the nether zone, but so few to occupy it. The boy didn’t mind this. Surrounding him were landscapes that stretched as far as the eye could see, with no human interaction for days. But there were some people out here.

As the boy would keep clear of any large communities and the motorways that linked them, his interactions came with stragglers that were in a similar predicament to him, albeit usually much older. They might range from sole vagabonds, with nothing but the clothes on their back and their small collection of belongings within their rucksacks, to scavengers groups, travelling in packs of two to twenty. Some would be friendly, others would taunt him or attempt to chase him. Most people didn’t even notice him and often were completely unaware of his presence. He had become adept at keeping himself out of sight, moving quickly but quietly. He had learned to become a ghost. A pale white ghoul silently traversing a graveyard of ruined and abandoned architecture.

The boy thought back to when he was in the city and found it strange (but was also immensely grateful) that so many people chose to live in that crowded hell. He had been right to move out. It was still dangerous out here, but for a child on his own, everywhere had its dangers and it was safer here than within the city. He would not have survived for long in the city. It still attracted those from near and far, despite the failed attempt of growth. Expansion had been rapid and quick, the boom in the economy meant there was plenty of work. People starting new ventures, creating new housing, factories. Nothing was finished but the sprawl continued. London began to take over the south of England and when the city got to the coasts, it looked back and saw a half finished desert of buildings and cranes. So the people fled back to the centre and left a ring of rural urbanity. The countryside had been decimated but it had not been killed and slowly it started to grow back, over stacks of raw materials and articulated trucks and steel columns that housed unfinished dreams.

Building sites that had stopped construction midflow. Cement mixers filled with powdery mortar and portacabins containing scattered polysterine cups and calendars detailing worker shifts. Doors had been left open, flapping in the wind. Factories with high ceilings and stretching walls, vacant rooms which were never occupied. Large industrial machinery still in unopened packaging sat unused and forgotten. Housing blocks with floor slabs but no walls. No enclosed, habitable rooms but a staircase and empty lift shafts that rose to the top. Cranes stood erect beside them, holding swaying pallets of concrete swinging gently in the breeze.

There was plenty of shelter. Some areas had clumped together to create small communities in the unfinished shells, and while some continued to construct, many left it as it was. There were strong thoughts from most out here that these dwellings would be temporary. The city would become too top heavy, too dense and reach the ceiling of the sky above London, and be forced to continue the outward spread again. When that happened, everything would be demolished and land would be fought over. It seemed inevitable.

One morning he awoke in a small upstairs room of a semi detached house he had barricaded himself within the night prior. As he took down the sheets of corrugated iron from the windows he stood there and saw a warehouse surrounded by a vast carpark, and behind stood the bright lights and impossible heights of the city. It was several miles away but he was drawn to it. It was a grand building, unlike any of the new creations that had been built in the last twenty years. It had been here before the grey belt had begun to take over the south. He started towards it, and it was dark by the time he reached the fence. Once inside the boy was disappointed. It was the same as anywhere else in the grey belt; empty, dark, quiet. Except for two vehicles right at the back. They were clean, relatively new, and had not been in this place for long. It was around this time that he was filled with an unexplainable nauseating fear, that only increased as he heard the low hum of a car approaching, soon followed by another. Fighting the urge to run, he crept towards a set of broken windows and looked out to witness a confrontation.

From the shadows of the warehouse, the young boy with dirt on his face and rags on his bony shoulders watches, bright eyes transfixed on the violence.

the boy

He never stayed in one area for too long. If too many people saw his face, he was worried police or care workers would be called, and he’d be taken into a home or locked away. He didn’t know what would happen to him as he’d never been caught. But from what he had experienced of people, he thought he was better off on his own. He could look after himself as he had done throughout his short life. He was only a boy, unsure of his own age but he had survived this long. He didn’t want to be forced into contact with people, not after what he had seen. For every person who had showed him kindness, ten more had been cruel or violent. He ran and hid at the sight or sound of humans, as a deer bolts from a snapping twig.

Sometimes he would get lucky and find abandoned flats or detached houses that had some items of worth hidden within. Most of them had been raided long ago, with cupboards open and newspapers strewn across the floor. If there was nothing of value to take, he would stay there for a few hours to stare at the pictures in the old newspapers. Or he might go into one of the bedrooms upstairs with its dusty toys and faded wallpaper, and shut himself inside for an hour and pretend this was home. If he couldn’t physically take something useful, he would try to visualise what it might have been to live in a house when it was home to others. That way it felt like he had learnt or experienced something in each place he went to and the visit would not have been a waste.

He didn’t like breaking into people’s houses – there was the risk of being caught or worse. But when times were desperate and he had not eaten for days it was a necessary risk. The feeling of dread as he approached when attempting to enter a house was one he tried to avoid, never sure if he would come into contact with people within. He once came across a row of terraced houses, and all but one was uninhabitable; one house he entered was flanked on either side by charred ruins. He had to climb through a roof window as the ground floor doors and windows were heavily barred, and slowly made his way down to the ground floor to find the kitchen. He filled his pack with various tins and cans, and as he passed through the living room he noticed an elderly woman, sunk so low into her chair that her head was level with the arm rests. She was skeletal and grey and so scared that she trembled and could say nothing. Her eyes were wide and frightfully fixed on the boy, they shone in a horrible fear that couldn’t help but reduce the boy to tears, and he slowly approached and put the bag with all the woman’s food in down at her feet. He wanted to tell her that he didn’t want to hurt her, that he was sorry for disturbing her and it would all be okay. He stood there, staying with her in silence until it began to get dark outside, at which point he backed away up the stairs, climbed out the window and left.

There was a constant internal conflict within him, raging silently. He feared everything but he longed for something. He had watched a group of children in a field late one afternoon throwing stones at a collapsed farmhouse. The front of the house still stood proudly into the air, its porch and front windows pointing out across the dead soil and ruined sheds, but behind it the two floors of furniture and memories had long given up the fight. The chaos of rubble behind the house front kept the façade standing. With it were several glass windows that had defied time and weather and were still intact. The children were shouting and screaming and laughing gleefully as each pebble they launched caused shattering glass to echo across a landscape forgotten. The boy watched with a fierce intensity, wanting to run away as fast as he could but at the same time desperate to take a stone himself and smash glass and laugh with them.

the boy abandoned

TEN YEARS AGO THE BOY had been born to a drug addicted mother, the father unknown. They would have lived together on one of the lower levels of the old ruined brick housing estates that still haunt the west side, but the mother discarded the boy after four days in a bid to escape the crying and the burden of responsibility which she could not bare. She died not long after, presumably from an overdose – it is unknown whether this was intentional or happened by chance. The boy was found clinging to life after over two days on the cold wet streets by a tramp, who took him to the local hospital with a knife to the child’s throat demanding cash in return for this innocent life. Police were called eventually and nurses and bystanders alike looked on indifferently. The vagrant could barely stand, yet was rather impressively managing to drink a foul smelling spirit out a dirty bottle whilst clutching the baby and a pocketknife against his soft fleshy skin. The juggling act lasted no longer than thirty minutes and he was shot dead on the hospital steps by police, who had grown impatient and tiresome in the cold. The knife had caught the boy’s windpipe and was bleeding profusely, and so he spent the next twelve months in an incubator within the very hospital he had been brought to.

He eventually recovered, but due to his grave injuries there had been little hope for survival and thus the nurses had not given him a name. There was serious damage done to his neck and vocal chords, and despite numerous attempts it was damaged beyond repair. Along with some scarring that ran across his chin and lower neck, he would never be able to speak.

Nor could he cry like a normal baby would cry, or make any noises that were vaguely human. Instead, when upset he would let out a high pitched screech. It was piercing and unnatural and the nurses despised it. Otherwise he was silent. Child therapists who interacted with him were unsure of his mental state; as he developed to one and two years old they could see intelligence with no sign of disability but the boy remained distant from anybody. A social disorder, or perhaps a latent memory of his early attack caused him to keep himself isolated and hidden. Even if he had the full use of his vocal chords there was some doubt whether they would have been used much at all.

SOME TIME PRIOR to turning the three, the boy was given to a children’s care home. Little is know of the conditions he faced at the orphanage but he spent several years there until he was adopted at the age of seven. A wealthy, middle aged couple with marital troubles who could not conceive naturally. The woman was captivated by the boy’s deep blue eyes and the fact he couldn’t talk made him a strange prize. They lived in a minimal high rise flat in the centre of the city, with sparse furniture and drab colours. A box consisting of three white walls and a panoramic window, spreading from the floor to the ceiling and overlooking the city.Here the boy lacked nothing but love and attention. A foreign nanny spent more time with him than his foster parents, and their idea of education was her harsh thick accent and daytime television. But the boy did not watch. There were always people on the screen, and he preferred to be alone. He took to spending day after day at the window.

Out of that vast glass barrier, that spanned wall to wall and from his feet to far above his small head, the programme was the same yet it never got boring. He saw thousands of lights flick on and off in adjacent towers, birds gliding freely upon waves of wind and the clouds form and precipitate onto the city below. The people were as small as ants, and ants didn’t scare the boy. Sometimes they couldn’t be seen at all. When the smog was bad enough, he couldn’t even see the city streets under that protective grey blanket. This was peace, he liked this. He liked to pretend he was in a bubble, high above everyone else where nobody could see or hear him. And even when the smog did dissolve away and the streets and those ants reappeared, he was too far away for anybody to notice him and he could just smile and continue watching them for hours.

This was his first memory.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

This is a short extract following on from a post I made a few weeks ago called The Shark. The homeless boy I am writing about here was the same boy who witnessed the violence documented in that short story, and I felt like a larger tale could be told involving these two characters.

Or A Confrontation At The Empty Warehouse On The Edge Of Town

the sharkSWEAT CLUNG TO HIM and made the steering wheel slip from his grasp as he wrestled the sedan into the car park. His heart began to thump wildly in his chest as the remoteness of this desolate landscape dawned on him. An abandoned warehouse loomed, and behind stood watching high rise flats that reached to the grey canopy of cloud above. Garth wondered if the others had met their fate in this same place. Light rain specked the windscreen as he brought the car around slowly to a standstill. He left the engine on and the headlights cast out weakly as the dusk began to crawl towards him.

It was a short wait that allowed Garth to question the very reason he was here. He had made a bad decision of course, as he was prone to doing; Garth was a cunning, deceitful and resourceful but ultimately weak-minded man. His interests tended to evolve into addictions, vices that dictated his life rather than distracted him, and his existence was composed of a endless cycle of reckless decisions and vindictive actions. No, Garth did not live a clean or honest life, but he could claim that he had never killed a man and that was the truth.

His heart sank as another vehicle pulled into the car park, the headlights raking across the lot searching menacingly for him. When they did find him the car, a blood red coupe, aligned itself with his own and gently stopped about twenty feet away. They faced each other, two mechanical stags preparing to rut. The car opposite became quiet and dark, and Garth fumbled for his own key in the ignition to bring silence and gloom upon them both.

The Shark stepped out, sparked a cigarette and walked around to lean on the bonnet of his car. Echoes rang out as the car door slammed shut. There he sat, patiently waiting for Garth to move. Thoughts raced through his mind but disappeared too quickly to comprehend. He took a deep breath, heaved up the leather duffel bag from the passenger’s seat and left the safety of the car.

The sounds of the city surrounding these two men fell upon deaf ears; an impenetrable dome in which they were contained and could not leave until their differences ceased to exist. Garth walked confidently towards the Shark, but it was a façade. The bag felt heavy in his hand. He thought it strange that a bag containing only stuffed toilet paper and a silenced pistol could have such dead weight. Around him there was no interference except the deafening silence and the crunch of the asphalt beneath his feet.

He stopped a safe distance in front of the Shark, who was still leaned back and arms folded on his car as if this were a show choreographed for his own amusement. His calmness gave Garth chills. The way he had handled himself during the robbery – the man must be some kind of professional. Or freak. The Shark was hired to get them in and out quietly, no noise, no fuss and as Garth had explicitly stated, no casualties. It had been a perfect score until the news reported that the heist had resulted in the violent deaths of three security workers. A crime that had shook the city, the heat was on Garth’s team and the police were searching the city rabidly.

Stood in front of the Shark now he saw little imposing about his form and appearance. Over six feet tall yes, but he was a lank slender creature with not a hair on his head, and from behind a pair of thick rimmed glasses two black eyes stared out blankly. But there was a disconcerting aura surrounding this man. With a reputation akin to urban legend throughout the city’s underworld, for the right price ‘the Shark’ could do just about anything.

“My money”, he grinned with childish glee.
“No”, Garth set the bag down onto the floor. “I aint here to pay you shit.” He dropped the bag to the floor, unzipped it and from within his hand grasped the cold carbon steel of the silenced pistol. His anxieties subsided in an instance and he withdrew the gun and aimed at the man in front of him. The Shark remained still, unthreatened.
“That won’t help you Gareth.” He was still calm but no longer grinning.
“This aint revenge for whatever you’ve done to my guys, or you killed three men and got half the city looking for me.”
“That was necessary.”
“Whatever. This is because I dont like you, youre a fucking psychopath.”
“You can have another week to get the money, Gareth. You don’t need to…”
“This aint about money! It’s about you.”
“Gareth”, he paused. “I require payment for my services. It is a simple concept. People bargain with each other, transactions are carried out. This is how the world works. I cannot leave you alone until I am paid.”
“You weird fuck.” Garth laughed manically. “They are all dead arent they? My team?!”
The Shark took a long time to answer. Then simply stated “Yes. All dead.”  Incensed at the nonchalance of the man Garth fired. Three shots thumped into the chest of the Shark and he sank, reduced to a crumpled heap at Garth’s feet. Exhaling deeply with one hand on his knee and the other still grasping the pistol tightly he fought back the urge to vomit.

As he walked over to the lifeless corpse the lights on the coupe sprung to life and dazzled him. He shielded his eyes but within a second they were off and he was in darkness once more. Garth looked back to the ground as his eyes sought the Shark, but he had risen and was not to be seen. Unimaginable terror came over him as he turned to locate the fiend, but he was too late. The Shark was behind him and stabbed into his ribs and again at his neck. He fell to his knees and looked up as the night took over and the rain began to pour. Garth was surprised at how little pain he was in; he was shivering but his blood was warm as it spilled onto the cold concrete, and the last thing he saw when he rested his head was the Shark walking away uninjured as the scene faded to black and darkness swallowed him and eventually Garth too.

FROM THE SHADOWS of the warehouse a young boy with dirt on his face and rags on his bony shoulders watches, bright eyes transfixed on the violence.

The Start Writing Fiction course with the Open University I have been participating in officially ended the week before Christmas. I’ve only just finished in the past few days due to other commitments over the hectic festive period. But here it is. I’ve put my final story in a separate post (which will follow this one), but the rest of the highlights from weeks 7 + 8 are all below.

Week 7

Formulating and sharing technical opinion: In between the various writing exercises we have undertaken through the course there have been plenty of opportunities to read passages by famous writers and encouraged to give our opinion on the techniques and language they use. Here we were asked to discuss in less than 200 words, two novels we had read in the past; one we liked and one we disliked.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is a violent journey across the US-Mexican border, set in the 1850s. McCarthy has a fantastically scrambled and unorthodox writing style interjected with moments of stunning, verbose, flamboyant prose. It was a style that took me a while to get used to, but it combines fantastically well with the world in which we find these murderous, merciless characters. The use of violence will turn many off, but it is not gratuitous; in fact it is vital to tell a story of war and conflict during a time of terrifying hate and suffering.

Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 is a book which I could not finish. Critically acclaimed and considering a must-read, I found I had to force myself to keep reading. Whilst I was reading, I was kept entertained, if a little confused as to exactly what was going on. Characters come and go; introduced, given an amusing anecdote, and moved on. 100 pages in and there was still no real plot, just witty observations and interactions. I don’t want to write it off just yet, and I appreciate that it’s a very well-written novel that a lot of people love. I don’t know, I think I will come back and give it a go in a few months time.

Two very different novels.

Two very different novels.

Editing and reviewing your story: Week 7 gave us hints, tips and encouragement to keep working and editing our short story, which was to be assigned and critiqued by our fellow writers in the final week.

For my first draft, I came up with an outline of a story or scene I thought I could complete within 1000 words. I wrote and wrote, without worrying about spelling, grammar, layout, or even the quality of the actual prose; I just rambled on to get it finished. By the time I had, I was at 1400 words, eek. Have a lot of cutting down to do.
I am satisfied with the way I build my characters and describe their settings and surroundings, but I cringe when I make any attempt at actual dialogue. It always seems a little cheesy and clichéd. I may cut down on speech, or perhaps try something completely different. It might be a bit risky but as it is the dialogue is clearly not working and is far too ‘wordy’.

Editing revisited: Again, another chance to step back and give an account of how the writing and editing process has been going.

I’m happy with the way I’ve described the setting. Point of view is sort of an omniscient narrator, who lingers with the protagonist but also observes other characters.
My issues come, as I’ve mentioned previously, with the dialogue. Having real issues making it believable. Reading the Jazz extract has certainly helped. I may cut down on dialogue for this particular assignment but I will keep practising it, as dialogue is a vital part of interactions between characters and writing in general.

Week 8

I’m going to post my short story as a separate post, otherwise this post will end up far too long. But I will post the feedback for it here.

Your own thoughts: Before we received the feedback from our course mates, we were asked to give a review or general thoughts on our own story.

As with many of you, I found the 1000 word limit quite restricting. There were only two characters in my short story, yet I feel they are somewhat underdeveloped. However there is certainly some clear conflict between the characters that I hope will interest the reader, and this is certainly resolved in the conclusion.
As I’m so far behind I do feel I’ve rushed this last task a little. I’m pleased with most aspects of it; it’s not perfect, and the story lends itself to being a lot longer. But I’m looking forward to getting some constructive feedback on it.

jean's review

Tricia's review

Closing thoughts: I was sceptical of how much I would get out of this course. I thought there was generally a good standard of discussion, and the quality of assignments that I gave feedback on were on the whole impressive. There were quite a few on the course for whom English was not their first language, which made reviewing some of their stories difficult, but there was always a passion and enthusiasm for writing. I saw very little negative comments during the course; almost all criticism was given constructively and taken in graciously.

Most importantly this course has been fantastic in giving me (and I’m sure many others) the confidence to share my work. I’m no longer worried or scared about someone not liking it or receiving negative feedback. It’s all useful and will only serve to make you a stronger writer. For me the next step is to continue to read frequently and write as often as I can; be it short stories or working on a larger project.

In amongst the Christmas parties I’ve been trying to catch up with the course. Officially it’s finished now; I still have Weeks 7 & 8 to complete. But judging from the comments on the Future Learn site, I’m not the only one. I was concerned that my slow progress would mean I would get no feedback from some of the longer pieces of writing towards the end of the course, but it seems plenty of people are in the same boat. Anyway, here are some of the highlights from Weeks 5 & 6.

Week 5

Challenging expectations: Having been encouraged to think on ideas for unconventional characters (in attempt to avoid stereotypes), I decided to write about a man who was an experienced hunter, but was also scared of blood. It seemed like an almost laughable situation but I had a lot of fun writing him into a situation and thinking about why he would put himself into these situations.

Walking slowly and treading lightly amongst the trees, Darron kept his eyes to the sky. He had seen the pheasants land near here. They should be grounded, less than two hundred metres away. He needed to get closer. His companion skulked behind. Sparky was a Springer Spaniel, young, enthusiastic – but inexperienced. He had only accompanied Darron on two hunts prior to this one. He knew he needed to be quiet, but he didn’t understand why. Darron could sense the eagerness in the pup to bark and run and enjoy this time outside with his owner.

There was a flutter of wings to his right; he turned his head and saw Sparky had already begun bounding through the undergrowth. “Good boy” he muttered under his breath as he followed. The dog had reacted just as quickly, if not quicker, than Darron himself; a hunter of twenty-five years no less. He was still learning, but there was potential for him to be much more than just a house-dog.

The commotion caused by Sparky, now barking wildly, inevitably caused the flush; around a dozen pheasants sprang up suddenly from between the trees and began to flap desperately to freedom. Darron brought his shotgun effortlessly up to his shoulder, took a deep breath, and fired. A good connection, at least two pheasants dropped like lead weights. Another had been winged, and spiralled more slowly towards the ground. He had noticed some spray of blood…blood, but he forced that from his mind.

As he entered a clearing in the trees, he could see the two pheasants that had been killed instantly, but no sign of the third. “Spark!” he yelled. He heard a muffled growl, and knew that Sparky was currently finishing off the third pheasant. “Sparky!” he cried, louder and more desperate than before. The spaniel emerged from the bush, along with what was left of the pheasant.

He tried to shout again, for Sparky to drop his prize, but his voice cracked and sounded weak. The dog cantered over with the pheasants neck clamped between his teeth. Blood covered the dog’s snout and paws. Darron tried to look away but he had already seen the blood. The dog was at his feet now, but Darron looked straight up at the sky, inhaling deeply. The dog licked his hand, and he knew instantly that there was now blood on his hand, and if he touched his face with that hand there would be blood on his face. He looked down to try and reassure Sparky, who wasn’t happy at being ignored. His bark was distant, and echoing. All Darron could see was a red patch of blood, with eyes and teeth.

He stumbled backwards. There were flashes of previous hunts; a buck being struck in the neck, throwing a burst of arterial spray into the air. A knife plunged deep into the throat of a charging wild boar. The blood. There was always blood, and when Darron came back around he was face down in the mud and leaves of the wintery earth.

Character sketch: A more detailed attempt to construct a character. This time we were permitted to submit a passage of around 500 words and receive feedback, as well as giving constructive criticism on a number of other pieces of writing from others on the course. Having been shown a number of examples of how to convey character (appearance, behaviour, habit etc), we were asked to test these and introduce a character from a third person perspective. The passage below was a scene I had pictured earlier in the week of a meeting taking place in the near future, where medicine and biotechnology has allowed longer lifespans and age prevention. It’s something that fascinates me, and I’d love to write a story in more depth based on the (very vague) premise I have begun to explore in the character below.

His appearance was that of artificial youth. At the age of sixty-seven, he had a thick head of dark hair, not a hint of grey. An audacious smile accompanied his flawless complexion. “Ahhhh! You are here! Please, come in”, he gesticulated with enthusiasm and vigour, ushering us into the building. It was his voice that made me weary. It had been altered, certainly, but it could not completely mask the wisdom and weariness contained within a man who was appeared younger than he was.

After twisting and turning down a narrow hallway we entered a long, dimly lit space, sparsely furnished. The ceiling was high, and as I craned by neck up I noticed several skylights sending in the last of the dusky sunlight. Many of them were missing glass panes and it was cold in here. Litter was scattered between breeze blocks and building materials. There was heavy machinery reverberating somewhere within the complex. Two worn sofas sandwiched a wood stove in the corner, and as the groups footsteps echoed around the room, it seemed this was where the interview would take place.

He gestured for us to take a seat, and an apparently young girl offered us refreshments. As we were waiting, he began to speak. “You don’t mind the surroundings, I hope?” he looked, suddenly concerned and aware of the dilapidation. The group looked uneasily at each other, then around the room, then back towards him. I shook my head. “Of course not. We are guests. Wherever you feel comfortable is just fine by us.”

He appeared relieved, and exhaled deeply. “Good. Excellent! It’s my rec room.” he paused, looking in turn at all three of us. “Do you know this term? Rec room? Like a room for…activities, for lack of a better word. I want a pool table, a couple of plasma screens, ambient lighting, the works.” He paused again and smiled, sensing our apprehension. A grin broke out across his face. “Hey! Come on, relax. This will be fun!”

He proceeded to small talk us until the young girl brought us our drinks. He kept the conversation light, and was eager to ask us about ourselves. For me at least, it was deeply uncomfortable. I made several attempts to change the tone, to discuss why we were really here and every time I was shot down. He was stalling, deflecting the attention from himself.

He had once feared the medical revolution I realised. There was an act in play here, and this man had practised it to perfection. He had been weak and scared. He had been forced to embrace the changes, to adapt with science and technology, and it had seemingly worked. He was successful, he was rejuvenated; but as the fire died and the glint in his surgically engineered corneas began to fade, I wondered at what cost.

I was really pleased with Jane's review, particularly how she picked up on the contrast in the character's appearance and his surroundings. It was a fantastic feeling to receive some praise and encouragement for a piece of writing I was really happy with.

I was really pleased with Jane’s review, particularly how she picked up on the contrast in the character’s appearance and his surroundings. It was a fantastic feeling to receive some praise and encouragement for a piece of writing I was really happy with.

This review from Mike was a little more grounded. There was some (constructive) criticism which was noted and I was appreciative. I agree that it could have done with further editing. However, some points (wanting to know as much as the narrator did about this man) felt a little unreasonable. In a passage of around 500 words, my hands were tied. I wanted to focus on the character's appearance and behaviour, while merely hinting at his importance at this point.

This review from Mike was a little more grounded. There was some (constructive) criticism which was noted and I was appreciative. I agree that it could have done with further editing. However, some points (wanting to know as much as the narrator did about this man) felt a little unreasonable. In a passage of around 500 words, my hands were tied. I wanted to focus on the character’s appearance and behaviour, while merely hinting at his importance at this point.

Week 6

Building a new character: Several methods of character profiling were shown to us, to help us get to know potential characters in more detail. They ranged from writing several pages and thousands of words, detailing every single piece of information about a character, to a more rigid set of guidelines (shown below) that we could almost ‘tick off’ as if it were a character checklist.

  • Physical/biological: age, height, size, state of health, assets, flaws, sexuality, gait, voice.
  • Psychological: intelligence, temperament, happiness/unhappiness, attitudes, self-knowledge, unconscious aspects.
  • Interpersonal/cultural: family, friends, colleagues, birthplace, education, hobbies, beliefs, values, lifestyle.
  • Personal history: major events in their life, including the best and the most traumatic times.

I was drawn to a middle ground between the two methods. Simply writing pages and pages about a character seemed a little intimidating and too much like hard work, but I found myself wanting to write more than just a few simple words. So short sentences, bits and pieces scattered around to paint a picture of my character, worked best for me. Below is my thought process for a new character.

Physical/biological: 86. 5ft10. Lean, thin.  Usual ailments due to old age but generally in fantastic condition. Still has some hair, grey. Deep creases and wrinkles in face, age beginning to show after a very graceful ageing process. Owns farm. Beginning to lose his faculties/Alzheimer’s. Widower, has been alone for 10 years. Strong voice that is beginning to quaver. Walks tall, but slowly, surprisingly strong for his age but beginning to weaken.

Psychological: Intelligent – has a mind for details, certain memories that he likes to recall and repeat. It comforts him. He does not like how the world has changed in the years since the war. Calm and likes to keep himself to himself, but enjoys the company of his family. Wary of strangers and people he doesn’t know. Happy when around family. Unhappy of his age, his failing body, his failing mind. Is reminded of his wife constantly which is bittersweet. Self knowledge, unconscious aspects.

Interpersonal/cultural: He has a strong interest in cricket/football and other sports, and was excellent at several sports in his youth. He was born in the UK and still resides there but in a much quieter area, farmland. No friends – many have died, moved or has lost contact with them. only family. he is hard working and honest. he cannot farm anymore as he is too old, so is starting to feel like this is it. bored at times? conflicted relationship with religion. was devout christian before war, then through his experiences of horror had a crisis of faith. as he has forgotten certain aspects, his faith has returned. but it is extremely traumatic when he has flashbacks, as this further causes him to question his faith.

Personal History: Fought in the/a war. Remembers incredible details about these days but not so much these days. Best – wife, children, war hero. Worst – the war, losing friends, losing wife. Losing respect of family as he gets older. Struggles to find worth in this new world.

I have written some extended passages of this character; both in first and third person, as I tend to avoid writing in first. However, I feel a little uncomfortable sharing it. Mainly as it was a bit of free writing, and in its current state is completely unedited and a bit all over the place. But this character is also very loosely based on someone I know, albeit a far more exaggerated version. It feels far more personal than other characters I have written about, as they have all come from other sources rather than being a copy of an actual person. Perhaps I’ll clean it up a bit and post it at a later date.

Starting to write your story: The rest of Week 6 was devoted to making a start on our short story – this story will be the main emphasis of the final two weeks of the course. I have a few ideas, but with a word limit of 1000 words, I may have to downscale some of my ideas or use something slightly less ambitious. The course has said we can submit a passage which is the start of a larger story, but I like the challenge of creating something self-containing, that stands up on its own. But as the course has officially finished, I’ll need to get these next two weeks done ASAP, or I’ll still be thinking about it well into 2015.

Which reminds me…Happy New Year.