Tag Archives: learning

About a year ago I heard about The A3 Review, a monthly contest where writers and illustrators are encouraged to submit work on a particular theme. This can be prose, poetry, graphics, photography, painting – as long as it fits the theme, can fit on an A6 panel and is limited to 150 words. The chosen pieces are then displayed in a neat, folded sheet of A3 that can be opened out. I’ve entered a couple times over the last year (haven’t been successful yet!) without ever actually checking out the Writing Maps, the central focus of the site. 


Creator Shaun Levin is a writer himself and has taught workshops and classes on creative writing for over 20 years, and his writing maps aim to combat writer’s block. Within each folded map are several ideas for prompts, with hints and guidance on how to expand your writing.

Not only do the maps give informative tips, exercises and examples on several aspects of writing (for example, the map I bought focuses on tone of voice and point of view), it can provide a source of inspiration, a prompt for ideas upon which you can put any new learnings into action. If you’re looking for some extra help and inspiration that comes in a slightly different form – fun and visual and easy to digest – then take a look at the multitude of different maps available on the site.

Visit for more details.

“Kill the pig. Slit his throat. Spill his blood.”

Cool book art I found on Pinterest by Levente Szabo. Check out his work

Cool book art I found on Pinterest by Levente Szabo. Check out his work

I guess Lord Of The Flies can be classed as a dystopian novel in a loose sense; it seemingly takes place in the midst of a future war where young boys are being transported to an unknown destination. There seem to be some obvious parallels with the widescale evacuations of many young children in the UK, out of the cities and into the country during the Second World War.

The plane crash lands, or is shot down. From the wreckage and the scar it causes in the uninhabited jungle, a group of boys emerge to discover they are stranded on an island, alone and away from the eyes of adults. Here they bond, they play, they laugh, they tease, they build, they survive, they hunt, they fight, they kill, they murder, they transform.

“He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one’s waking life was spent watching one’s feet.”

“We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?”

A brief synopsis yes, but Lord Of The Flies must be one of the most read pieces of literature in schools. In my secondary school it was not a part of our syllabus yet I always remember a poster that hung on the wall of our English department, depicting a group of scruffy dirty schoolboys in a jungle.

This is one of those books that have found their way onto my ‘to-read’ list not because I’m necessarily interested in the subject or plot, but because it is one of those books that is considered a classic – a must-read – and in fact a book that most people have read. As I am on a mission to drink up as much literature as I can, books like Lord Of The Flies seem like a no-brainer when trying to absorb the classics of the past century.

I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the book, rather it was one that I needed to get under my belt so that I could further enjoy novels that were more up my street. However I soon felt some regret at this viewpoint, as Lord Of The Flies quickly gripped me as its core themes are those which appeal to me greatly.

The prose is rich and vivid – vitally important when your characters, a group of schoolboys, and your setting, an uninhabited Pacific island covered in dense jungle, are so fundamentally different. Bringing these two worlds together, and how the boys initially react and then adapt to their surroundings is fascinating in its own right.

“Along the shoreward edge of the shallows the advancing clearness was full of strange, moonbeam-bodied creatures with fiery eyes. Here and there a larger pebble clung to its own air and was covered with a coat of pearls. The tide swelled in over the rain-pitted sand and smoothed everything with a layer of silver. Now it touched the first of the stains that seeped from the broken body and the creatures made a moving patch of light as they gathered at the edge. The water rose further and dressed Simon’s coarse hair with brightness. The line of his cheek silvered and the turn of his shoulder became sculptured marble. The strange, attendant creatures, with their fiery eyes and trailing vapours busied themselves round his head. The body lifted a fraction of an inch from the sand and a bubble of air escaped from the mouth with a wet plop. Then it turned gently in the water.

Somewhere over the darkened curve of the world the sun and moon were pulling; and the film of water on the earth planet was held, bulging slightly on one side while the solid core turned. The great wave of the tide moved further along the island and the water lifted. Softly, surrounded by a fringe of inquisitive bright creatures, itself a silver shape beneath the steadfast constellations, Simon’s dead body moved out towards the open sea.”

And then we are introduced to the mentality of certain boys. Friendships are begun, bullies are established, weaknesses are highlighted. Soon the setting could be anywhere – truthfully, it doesn’t matter. The difference is the lack of rules, the lack of guidance and morals.

“What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?”

Stills from the 1963 move adaptation, credit to

Stills from the 1963 move adaptation, credit to

While the descent into savagery is a long-time coming, when it does arrive it is no less shocking, and positively terrifying in its childishness. The various putdowns, insults, scorns are delightfully powerful as we witness the victims blush and snarl and swear and cry as the group descends upon them, whether it be at a meeting or being the butt of a joke, to running through the jungle.

It appears that the plane that was shot down contained only children from all-boys schools. Golding made the decision to keep the children as boys on the island. I can see why; with girls and boys the subject of sexuality will eventually raise its head, and with the age of the children at little over ten and the tone of the content as it is it could have been a difficult and controversial task. But would the overall outcome have been any different with girls? It seems unlikely. I don’t think the boy’s descent into savagery is because they are boys. Golding strongly suggests that the human condition leans more towards savagery, violence and chaos, as we how the boys are swayed by fighting and fear of a beast that haunts their dreams.

“Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.”

The beast is nothing. It is driven by the fear and savagery present within the boys’ subconscious. But as night begins to fall with darkness looming, away from the safety of the daytime fear only grows stronger. The titular Lord Of The Flies (a literal translation of Beelzebub) is actually a severed pig’s head, which taunts Simon during a hallucination.

“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast.”

Simon’s mouth laboured , brought forth audible words. “Pig’s head on a stick.”

“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!’ said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are the way they are?”

There are many conflicts and symbolism within the book and it’s very much an allegorical novel. Ralph is the protagonist, and wants order. Jack is the antagonist, and wants to hunt and fight. Their conflict can be seen as civilisation vs savagery, or leadership vs desire for power, or even good vs evil. The loss of innocence.

“The tears began to flow and sobs shook him. He gave himself up to them now for the first time on the island; great, shuddering spasms of grief that seemed to wrench his whole body. His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the islands; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”

I’m glad I went back to visit Lord Of The Flies.

Recently added to my to-read list, Animal Farm and The Old Man And The Sea, some other scholarly books from my youth.

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?

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.

Nearly three weeks since my last post, and I promise it’s not (totally) because of the new Xbox. I was sent to the UK for work again, but it’s these cold dark nights that are really sapping my creative energies.

I mentioned a few posts back that I had signed up for a creative writing course, specifically ‘Start Writing Fiction’ by the Open University. From a previous post…

“It’s only eight weeks, all can be done online and in comparison to an academic qualification is pretty worthless in the grand scheme of things. But it is something I’ve always wanted to do…The aim is to take it seriously, and use it to hone my literary skills as well as receiving feedback and critiquing work from other aspiring writers.”

The Future Learn site is very clean, and makes it easy to show your current progress.

The Future Learn site is very clean, and makes it easy to show your current progress.

A link to the site (see above) for those interested, with details of the course

So I’ve decided to document some of the writing and discussions I take part in on the Future Learn site here on the blog. There is also an added benefit in this, as the Future Learn site only allows us to write comments consisting of 1200 characters – only 200-300 words. It could be that for longer exercises I link my blog to the site.

Week 1

Fact And Fiction: Writing a short paragraph containing three facts, and one element of fiction. I was at work during this task, and used my surroundings and the mood in the office as my facts – it was getting darker, and the mood in the office seemed dull and moody. The fiction I decided to include was a feeling of danger; some incident occurring outside the office which had the workers inside isolated and worried.

The sun had begun to set, casting creeping shadows across the floor and up the walls, and as the office grew darker so did the mood amongst those trapped inside. The doors were still locked, the power was still on; for now at least. But it would not last, and as the workers sat in silence they knew they would soon have to make a choice. To stay and wait or to leave and run – there would be no right answer.

Imagining Writing Spaces: Here we were tasked with describing venues which were either ideal or ill-suited for writing. I took one of my recent experiences as inspiration, having been sent to the UK with work the previous week. I had actually planned to write some blog posts while over there, but it wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it would be.

A trip to the mainland was not what he needed this week, but he tried to look at the positives. While he’d be kept busy during the day with the company, he could retire to his hotel room in the evenings and catch up with some writing.

The first sign that this plan was doomed from the start was the lack of wi-fi in his room. The second was that the best alternative was a pub across the street. He took his laptop across with him, ordered some food and a pint, and sat down at a small table in a dimly lit corner. The atmosphere was busy but the level of noise was acceptable.

After a mediocre meal, and another pint, he began to think about writing. He looked around. A fat man was sat by the quiz machine, becoming more irate with every question answered incorrectly. A group of young girls were cackling and screaming at every lewd joke or crude reference. Groans and cheers were audible by a cluster of football fans across the bar.

Two hours, two pints and several cigarette breaks later, he was no closer to doing anything productive. In a slightly drunken stupor the thought of writing didn’t interest him, and after a burning nightcap he stumbled back to his room to a dreamless sleep.

Developing A Character: Having been encouraged to keep a notebook or journal and observe the world around us (people and potential characters in particular), we were tasked with developing a character we had taken note of.

The door opened to reveal the silhouette of a man, his tall frame casting a shadow against the dazzling afternoon as he walked in. He paused as the door shut behind him, seemed to take a deep breath, and surveyed his surroundings. He squinted slightly, his vision no doubt adjusting from the blinding sunlight outside to the cool, dimly lit store. He was young – mid twenties at a guess, and a good looking bloke by anyone’s standard. He wore a suit which didn’t quite fit, and I guessed it had been bought without any advice or guidance. His gaze caught mine and, as if remembering what he had come in for, immediately began walking towards the counter.

I looked down at my phone, not wanting to watch him as he approached. I looked up briefly, to see he was looking side to side at the various products on the aisles as he walked lazily towards the counter. Just as I turned my head away, I noticed his left foot dragged, as if he was trying to disguise a limp.

He finally reached the counter, and I turned to face him. “Hey. Can I help?”

He was looking straight through me as he spoke. “I have an appointment with your manager later this evening.” He spoke quietly, and his gaze twitched to the door behind my shoulder. “I will not be able to make it, and I was hoping he was in now so I could explain in person.” His voice was hesitant and cracked at one point. I realised he was nervous. His youthful expression and weak smile were betrayed by his darting, sunken eyes that wanted to be as far away from this place as possible.

Using a notebook to observe, speculate and generate ideas that occur to me

Using a notebook to observe, speculate and generate ideas that occur to me

Week 2

Familiar Words In Unfamiliar Places: A quick exercise to describe something relatively mundane with unusual terms and phrases. Another one I thought of while at work, and I was quite pleased with how it turned out.

The computer gave a series of muffled whirs and clicks eerily similar to choked tears; a last cry that expressed the acceptance of age and time. Its monitor faded to black, and beneath the desk the grey tower stood defeated, a husk of lost data and memories.

The Blank Page: My views on researching, and motivation to write.

I don’t know if I love researching, or if I’m addicted to procrastination. One research topic will inevitably end up moving on to something completely unrelated, and before I know it I’m watching cat videos on YouTube again.

Starting Ploys: Methods were given to encourage us to start writing, and to not worry to much on that very first line. With prompts like ‘Emma said that’ and ‘I remember when’, a story can be coaxed out of your confused, tired mind.

(Emma said that) she no longer wanted to see me at the bar. No more dropping by, no more drinks on the house, no more staying until kick out and offering to help clean up. I understood her stance, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept it.

(I remember when) the rain cascaded down in thick sheets. The dull rumble of distant thunder and an occasional bolt of light that revealed an impossible horizon of black cloud. We moved everything we could carry upstairs, and sat huddled in the centre of the landing surrounded by our belongings. Any attempts to talk, to comfort each other, were drowned out by the screaming winds and restless debris – so we remained completely still in silence and stayed there until morning.

Heightening your observations: An attempt to add more details to the character description from week 1. In order to keep it short, I cut the conversation from the end to allow myself to focus more on the observer’s first impressions of the man entering the store.

The door opened to reveal the silhouette of a man, his tall frame casting a shadow against the dazzling afternoon as he walked in. He paused as the door shut behind him, seemed to take a deep breath, and surveyed his surroundings. He squinted slightly, his vision no doubt adjusting from the blinding sunlight outside to the cool, dimly lit store. He was young; mid twenties at a guess, with a strong jaw but gentle features. A short yet messy head of hair gave him a more youthful appearance. It was the way the man dressed which caused me to take notice. He wore a suit which didn’t quite fit, and I guessed it had been bought without any advice or guidance. The tight fitting jacket was a shade lighter than the trousers, which were inches too long and hid the best part of the man’s scuffed black boots. In a place like this, he stood out. His gaze caught mine and, as if remembering what he had come in for, immediately began walking towards the counter.

As he approached he seemed to feign interest in various products on each aisle as he walked lazily past. Everything was given the same glassy stare. As I turned away I noticed his left foot dragged, as if he was trying to disguise a limp.

Ideas For A Story: We were asked to write a story, or the beginnings of a story, based on the first thing heard when turning on the radio. I tuned in to hear a news report of flooding. I found this difficult, as I wasn’t sure to create a story which could later involve flooding, or a short passage that involved flooding. I decided to introduce a character whose family lived on flood plains, and thus were always at the risk of floods.

The first raindrop fell on a Tuesday morning, around half past eight, and it hit Dale Mackenzie right between the eyes. He had sensed it, and there was an almost poetic beauty when he had lifted his head up to the skies in anticipation to greet that first drop. Living on a farm and spending most of his waking hours outdoors for the best part of forty years had given Dale an understanding of the weather that few meteorologists could rival. He smiled, and goosebumps began to erupt on his exposed forearms. The summer was dying but it was still warm, and the rain was cool on his skin.

He began to quicken the pace back to the farmhouse, as the rain became heavier and the denim shirt he was wearing grew darker and more saturated. His worn, faded Stetson provided shelter for his face and created a stream that ran down his back. He removed the hat and let his long hair loose. As it became wetter he slicked it back to keep it from sticking to his forehead and out of his eyes. He looked around at the land that surrounded him. Fields that grew maize and were home to cattle and sheep that went on for miles and miles and ended somewhere over the horizon.

The farm and lands were bought by his grandfather half a century ago, they had been passed down to his father, and now they had been passed on to him. While on his deathbed his father, hands shaking and tears streaming down his weathered face, had made him promise to never sell the farm, and this had upset Dale. He loved the farm as much as his father, and his father knew. His wife had told him that the desperate plea was due to the state of his fathers decaying mind, a shadow of the man he had been reduced to towards the end. Dale saw that clearly now. He had always known, he thought, but there was a tremendous strain on him during his fathers last weeks, and he had left the room in tears after making his promise.

He saw the house, and as he got closer he could make out the figures of his wife and children stood on the porch. He was about half a mile away now, and now approaching with great bounding strides. Not that he was eager to get out of the rain – they hadn’t seen rain for over two weeks, and Dale was thoroughly enjoying this shower. Having predicted the rain when he retired to bed the evening prior, he had left the house earlier than usual this morning to finish his morning rounds in good time. This meant that he had not spoken to his family this morning, something he hated doing. He loved his family, as many men do, but Dale’s love for his family fuelled his existence. The way his son rubbed his eyes and yawned as he entered the parlour each morning, or his wife tickled the back of his neck and kissed the top of his head as she brought him his breakfast. His life was not exciting, but he did not live for excitement. He had been young once. Now he lived for love, and was wholly committed to his wife and their children. He was utterly content.

So the first two weeks have been interesting. I’ve been impressed by the quality of my fellow writers, and the tasks have certainly given me some ideas and inspiration to write more. I think as the weeks go by I’ll see a marked improvement in my writing ability, but it’s still early on. The main benefit is that I’ve enjoyed the majority of the tasks, and already have some ideas for short stories that I can’t wait to dive into.