Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Fourth Draft

Finally, the short story is a) 2,200 words long after being in excess of 3000, and b) feeling OK, reasonable. No. 1 son - easily my biggest but most creative critic- likes it, although it's not the sort of thing I normally write.

It's ended up in four scenes, and the biggest weakness is that each section needs to start and end on a strong statement. Apart from that,I just need to listen to the music of it. It has some nice phrases in it, but they feel diluted down by the story a bit. It's drifted a long way from my sister and her own death now.

Now the commentary! I wrote 700 words but frankly, it's still very analytical. Then I checked the assignment brief and found out it had to be 500. Somehow I have to prune it down while expanding the emotional interpretation! This is confusing - but that's where I lost quite a lot of marks in TMA01. I'm going to have another go. The one thing that has really grabbed me from the course and section 2 is Flannery O'Connor, and I want to get some of her stuff in. Not to mention the difficulty of working out how to reference CD tracks and the BRB. Still ignoring the OCA assignment.... Ooops.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Second Draft of TMA02

I realise I had intended to send this off at the end of November, but I'm on the case now. The story takes place in four scenes, at the beach, with the police, at the deceased's home and at the funeral. Four scenes is a lot for 2200 words so I tried to work on the main three and leave out the house scene, but it didn't really work. The story is about finding out about someone now they are dead that you didn't know well during life. I remember being involved in my parents clearing out my grandmother's house, when I was a young adult. There were aspects of her life that were on show that I had no idea about as a child, although she was a regular visitor and lived close by. I ended up with a box of cheap china that I loved, so retro, but I realised it was a set you collected over time, piece by piece with either cigarette coupons or a magazine. It brought home to me how short of money she was. In my character's story, she was unaware how much this person that she judged and disapproved of was so loved, so popular. How much do we really know even our own family? My brother had a fortieth birthday this year, I would only have known a couple of people there. His closest friends and I hardly even know their names, yet we are reasonably close. Yet when we are together, he says things that surprise or baffle me, that make me realise how little I know about what goes on in his life, and how little he understands about mine. At one of our deaths - probably mine, I'm nine years older - will he find out things he never knew and I never thought to tell him?

Meanwhile, I forgot about the OCA assignment even though it's 90% done. So I did the TMA commentary in first draft, it's very technical and needs to be less cold, so I thought I would have some fun with the OCA commentary today. I wrote a radio play, my first, and hope she likes it. Now I have to go back and edit it into something warmer and more emotionally satisfying. Not to mention I still have Chaucer plays to write, which would all have been easier if I hadn't slipped into a four week depression during December.

The other thing that has been slowing me down is the realisation that I do understand poetry, a bit anyway, and can actually write it. It takes forever to write, that's the difference between knocking off a few adjectives and a bit of fluffy language and actually writing good stuff - which I am beginning to recognise. Slow process but I am gaining in confidence about TMA03 and starting to collect freewrites for it. This could be fun.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Writing what you feel as well as what you know

I've now got 4 perfectly good short stories, none of which is suitable for my TMA though maybe they would be better for competitions. So, going back to basics, the short stories that I know are the best are all from emotional experiences of mine or of close friends. Since I have an incredibly rare day all alone from 10 in the morning until midnight, I have run off a painful first draft of the experience of attending my sister's funeral, as a starting point. The contrast between the funeral of a loved one who had a death through illness, with all the expectation and professional support, funeral services etc. and the service in a mortuary with an unexpected death was my base camp, along with a chance encounter. We were clearing out my sister's house when one of her friends came to the house, freaking us out because I had only heard his name and never met most of my sister's friends. It made the day more mysterious and confusing, a bit like her death.

So I wrote 2.3k words in an hour, and it flowed really easily but painfully. Now I have to make some decisions. It wrote itself in first person - not my favourite to be honest. But I know from experience that going to third person omniscient can be difficult, I tend to water down the feelings involved, distancing myself from it rather than keeping the emotions in there. My voice character is rather prissy and easily shocked, not very lovable. I managed to create settings thinly but have to improve that. First person makes it hard to conjure an image of the speaker, too. The biggest problem for me is the showing not telling that my first drafts are weak on. I need to go through and highlight areas I can work on, but it's a couple f days work before it's ready to read out loud (my personal method of working!). Oh, and I need to work more suspense in there, that's for me, to ramp up the plot element. Did I mention that it has a very conventional beginning, middle and an end? It clearly needs to start at a high emotional point, but I'm not sure how to. At least, after weeks of limping along, I'm energised by my writing again. And I have lots for my commentary!

Not to mention I have material for a poem as well! TMA03, here I come.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Short story

OK, now I'm really getting into Xmas/solstice and still really need to do both assignments - I believe I was here a month ago! Maybe I need a deadline after all...I've written a short story (my fourth for this OU TMA02) and I think I'm onto the right kind of thing. The problem is, it's a good story, based on a true story, and that's where the problem is coming in. In telling the narrative, I'm struggling to put forward the quality of writing that my tutor seems to be looking for - there isn't quite room for in depth character analysis, descriptions, settings etc. I've got it down to three scenes really, the petrol bomb through the window (it doesn't go off though), the emotional distress of the person it was lobbed at, but the twist is, he doesn't care about the petrol bomb, he just wants to talk to someone he loves who hasn't spoken to him for many years. Sounds pants when I put it like that, but I'm trying to link up the emotions in the case. I'm trying to make you see the emotions and needs of a person who has put himself beyond normal sympathy through his deeds. It's a bit of a struggle! I'm back on draft 3 now - I get stuck at this point, usually. Back to the keyboard, in between cooking for the freezer. I promised Rosie could make the pudding - she's 10 so still loves all the drama of the steaming and cooking! On the downside, it's a giant pudding for 12 people so it's going to be 8 hours on the top of the stove... at least. I could write a short story in that time, and then I'd have 5 unfinished drafts!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Addicted to stories

As a psychologist I'm interested in why we do and like certain things. We clearly love TV, we watch hours a day. As a nation, we consume newspapers, books and magazines, we follow celebrity gossip and news scandals, we love film and TV. In the past, we were hooked on serial stories, radio dramas and storytelling in every form. I think my need for writing is a reflection of my need for stories. I have always told myself stories to get to sleep, and sometimes just need to write them down. So I've written short stories and much longer stories, but I was nervous about putting them out so I didn't get feedback. Now I'm getting the feedback and it's painful but I can't believe how much I have learned in this last couple of years! Working on short stories for my TMA, I'm distracted by the craft rather than the story itself. So I've decided to spend the weekend and early next week writing a short story for its story, then edit based on my new knowledge and the fiction chapters of the Big Red Book. I am feeling caught between 'good' writing and good stories.I've dipped into some 'good' stories and while the craft is beautiful the stories aren't always compelling. I've been reading some Bridport winning stories and runners up in their anthologies,and some of them are wonderful. Some are baffling to me, the stories take a back seat to the writing to such an extent I can't make head or tail of them. The characters are unlikeable so you don't care about them, so don't engage with the stories. So, as a novelist, I need to let up trying so hard to understand the short story thing and carry on doing what I do best - write long fiction with strong stories. So I thought I would take a bit of a plot in a novel and write it up as a short story, then edit as recommended in the BRB. I suppose I should stop talking about it and actually do it....

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Two approaches to creative writing

I'm struggling but starting to see a way through my confusion at feedback from my two tutors. One likes my work, offers lots of practical tips but is very encouraging along the lines of 'get on and work on your novel'; the other is much more strict. She is much less interested in the story, or even the characters, but she's encouraging me to describe my characters better, worry about every word (do I need that word or this word). Although I got a good score, I felt very deflated by her feedback. She was fussing about spacing and punctuation, even tiny issues like whether two words would be better reversed. But I'm learning loads and working on the process of becoming self-critical and knowing what is good and what is bad. Meanwhile I'm working on writing a Christmas present for other half, and more Chaucer.

So, here's a dilemma - how comfortable is anyone writing sex scenes? Because I have to write one for the book....

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Bigger Plot

I came up with a bigger plot! The problem is, it could easily become a novel. So, wrestling with my 'short' story, I thought I would help no.1 son with his A174 coursework, you know, stand and nod approvingly. His problem is keeping his very fluent writing down to a tiny plot and 500 words. So, talking to him has made me think again about mine. My character is going to be discovered doing something she shouldn't, and about 75% of the way in the first draft the husband finds out. Now I'm rearranging it so this is the opening line, then the rest builds up in the past. I suppose Kez could look at doing the same. Because we're doing the Chaucer project, he's in historical mode rather than his usually fantasy genre, so he's invented a character in a 14th century city.

Since my husband has given up his Saturday building me a tailored CD bookcase for all my classical CDs I have been rescuing music all day - and enjoying it. It fills a space in me, I can't explain why, but it also gets me writing. Since he is out at a music club this evening (Devon and their folk clubs!) I can settle down to some music I haven't heard in three years. And it makes me want to write different stories. I suppose some of the ancient sacred music makes me so melancholy I write about ghosts, empty rooms, lost loves, old age. Sammartini and Vivaldi make me want to sing, and all my prose is full of assonance and rhythm. 19th century music like Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky make me feel sentimental and later stuff takes me on a journey. At least I didn't have to chip away at the same old bits of music for days because it's such a fiddle getting new stuff out. I've been sorting and labelling all day - which is why my spelling isn't too bad!

The OCA assignment is hanging over me a bit. I must sit down and read my radio play tomorrow, see if it works at all. Then I can write the commentary. The commentary is the difficult bit for me!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Using the course

I'm amazed at how much I'm using the course even with kids. 'Show not tell' is becoming the mantra for me when writing with them. I'm using the poetry all the time: not only did I write about 50 lines of full rhyming iambic pentameter for one of the plays but I'm working on lyrics for a song in dactyls. (That's Tum ta ta, Tum ta ta for anyone who hasn't done the Fry book!) Meanwhile, I've written about six or seven short stories but none of them are suitable for TMA02. So I analysed them and found - because I've been writing to 1200-1500 words for so long, I'm stuck with what to do with the extra words. They start to look like padding when I take my plot and stretch it to 2,200 words. Basically, 1200 or 1500 words isn't enough to go beyond one story arc (although I squeezed one into 750 words for TMA01) and 2,200 seems a bit short for subplots. So I need bigger plots in the first place - big juicy three handers, perhaps, rather than two handers, or two or three scenes. So, I'm looking at drawing on a draft of a plot I sketched out as an exercise for plotting novels (I really don't plot; I find characters and they lead me into a story). Basically, the first chapter of a novel, but taking out the big story arc and leave the subplot that starts in chapter one. Then somehow finding a resolution for it.

Two years ago I wrote a novel about a woman coming back from a life threatening assault, trying to find herself in the story of the attack, which had become bigger than she was, just when she had felt diminished by being ill and weak for a time. I could have some fun with this perhaps, reconnecting her with her own autonomy, which tends to drift away in hospital. Perhaps her defiance can be her resolution, as she works on her own agenda, not the therapist's. I like to see clients starting to disagree with you, as a therapist, finding their feet again.

The OCA assignment is due in the end of November, so I need to get on with that. The idea from my TMA01 would make a great radio play, and that's where my tutor and I were going. Today, we discussed filming (and me writing a screenplay) in the Chaucer, so working on dramatic media is very timely. I have the A363 book to work from as well, and my colleague and I will have to storyboard the thing. Fortunately, she is very visual and kinetic with her imagination, I'm wordy and practical, so hopefully, we will work it out! All this hard work feels like the NaNoWriMo that I didn't think I had time for - and which would have been less words! I wrote 8000 words in the last three days... Oh, and I did I mention, if you are considering doing A215, that Stephen Fry's book is a brilliant start to debunk all the scary structures, rhyming and metred poetry? An Ode Less Followed. Seriously builds confidence in non-poets. Section 3 on the course is great for creativity, but leaves you a bit unsure about where to go next... Fry makes you listen to the music of poems. If you still resist the book (and yes, there's not a lot of contemporary poets in it), take one piece of advice from it: read out loud, really slowly. If you can't hear any kind of rhythm or sense - read it again, out loud, even slower. It works. For those people who are addicted to new poetry, look again - lots of poets write in metres of some sort, even if not completely. And as for archaic forms: villanelles are everywhere.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Motivation returned!

Well, after a week of crying into my beer (metaphorically - I hate beer) I am back writing again. That's the longest dry spell I've had in several months. partly I have had to look at writing for the Chaucer project (see my home grown Chaucer blog). One of the kids has a story about a fish she wants to tell in a puppet play form, so I'm writing words even in simple ones. Then I wrote the beginning of a short story which I feel would become a novel if I let it. the theme is really about how babies transform our lives. Not a literary theme maybe, but I was transformed by pregnancy and grew up very smartly when Léonie was born. I think we evolved from self-centred people, who were learning to make ourselves happy, to people who were focused on making Léonie, and each other, happy. Anyway, it's fun writing about people who are somewhat like the ones I actually know.

Going back to Chapter 5 with much more understanding I am creating characters for stories that are starting to speak to me. The O'Connor reading spoke to me (from chapter 11) so clearly I wish I had read it first. I realised this is how I write fiction - I start with a character and a ghost of a story and as the character coalesces in my mind, so the plot starts to form. This main character is clear as day to me, I can see her in black wool jacket, blue jeans, dark, short hair, blue eyes. She's standing in the doorway of the bookshop, bag wrapped around her purchase, waiting for the downpour to easy so she can head to the cafe. She's got the resilience of youth but the first lines of age and responsibility beginning to crease the skin around her eyes. I like her, but she wouldn't have much patience with me, not someone her mother's generation. Anyway, she's driving and living this story and I get to type it. She's eyeing up this older man, at the moment, I didn't expect that. I think her life is so routine, so tiring and public, that she craves a secret of her own, even if just a fantasy about a married man.

I'm playing with the prospectuses again. I have looked at Winchester but to be honest, this divide between writing led and story led fiction is starting to seem bigger than I thought. I know there are a few fantastic stories that do both, but I don't always choose them. I am a complete story junkie. I think that's what draws me to writing, all these tales running in my head all the time. Portsmouth seems slightly more story driven and the emphasis is on producing a book at the end rather than lots of literary reviews or poetry. I'll contact them and see where it goes.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Lost my motivation

Well, I'm struggling with my motivation at the moment. I have three drafts for short stories for TMA02, all well developed but not finished, but I can't help thinking they are stronger stories than elegant writing. I feel as if this uneasy balance between 'genre' and 'literary' is the elephant in the OU room. I was happy with the short story I wrote for TMA01 and it got good marks. Nothing I've written since is as reflective or unusual. The time lines are linear, the characters expressed in the third person form a single POV, the tension builds predictably, there are twists at the end. Nothing like the 'literary' short stories that I am reading. Given all the stresses and business of a crowded week, I suppose I'm doing all right, but I want my enthusiasm back. The TMA squashed that a bit (even though I did well). I just don't want to hand my baby over to be dissected, though the comments were extremely helpful. Perhaps I just need to get on and make the changes my tutor suggested and have a look at where that lands me. Meanwhile, I'm blue, playing with chapter 5 and working with my drafts. I just want to wallop out 1500 or 2000 words in a rush of first draft enthusiasm, not get stalled with 'Oh, what's the point, it's not good enough' fears. I might work on my poetry again just to get going.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

TMA01 back

I don't know whether to laugh or cry, but I have my first TMA back for A215. I did really well, by my usual standards, but there isn't a score that I can easily cope with, I have so much emotional baggage about writing. So I shall just have to be my own therapist, and let the year be all about improving my craft and developing my writing.

When I was a very unhappy schoolchild (most years I was miserable) my English teachers were very encouraging, and told me I could develop my writing. I didn't, because I was busy learning science, but I still wrote. I found I could write short stories and articles and sell them - though for fairly small sums of money. I couldn't see how I would ever make a living out of it, so I followed a more practical path. Submitting my work for criticism and rejection was heartbreaking, because I had only had one 'B' in five years of school. I saw the B as a failure.That may seem arrogant but in every other respect I was a failure. I didn't fit in with other children, my home life was chaotic and cramped, I couldn't do maths or french and was bored by most subjects, and my English books were reliable validation, full of A-, A or even A+. That B haunted me, because for that one homework, other people wrote better than me.

So, here I am, being marked out of 100 compared to a group of people, many of whom will be better that me. So my task now is to put the past aside and remember that I am working on the craft of writing (my own writing style, not necessarily the best literary style)), and the people who are doing better than me on my course, are a selected group of bright, creative people.

My tutor was very encouraging and liked the imagery in my description. She liked the short story, but made some suggestions. Once my wounded feelings are soothed, I'm sure I will be happier with her suggestions. She also wanted me to look at punctuation around speech, which would be useful anyway. I have a feeling that this first mark, no matter what it was, would be painful. This is an exercise in growing a thicker skin and letting go of the marks, instead, learning new skills and working on improving my work overall. And recalling that getting the diploma is the main aim from the marks, and the real benefit is my tutor's ideas and feedback.

So, slightly shattered by our Samhain celebrations and only slightly downcast (once the panic, crying and sobbing stopped - only joking) I am ready to take on the rest of the course with, really, a very satisfactory mark.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Radio plays

I picked up the course book for A363 a couple of months ago - partly, at least, to make A215 seem easier and more doable. But also, because I thought I would be able to get ahead with the course after I finish the coursework for A215 - which I probably will do in the spring. In the meantime, my OCA tutor's feedback got me started on converting my assignment into a radio play - and it worked! At least, I think it does, and so I'm now looking at the 750 word assignment thinking that might work for radio even better. It's about a village woken up early by the lifeboat station, and waking up, the sun starting to come up, all from the perspective of someone who slowly because revealed as the character in the water waiting for rescue. I tried to make her a bit hypothermic and therefore rambly. I thought, that dark/cold thing is better for radio than film, though it works OK as a short story it is incredibly short - it was just an exercise for A215! But it's all good source material so I'm playing with it. I like the challenge of trying to realise the external settings purely through what is heard.

I'm finishing the poetry section in the book, and going back into the fiction section (part 2) to write the assignment. I've written a linear story but it feels very pedestrian, so I am now looking at starting in the middle of the action (in media res - I know, I read that chapter!) and increasing the tension that way. I'm also trimming the characters down basically to the two protagonists, young people buying their first house together. Although husband and I are 100 years old, we bought our first home together a couple of years ago, so I had some doubts/weirdness to draw on from my own life. My OCA tutor says it's important to draw on experience but not write all autobiographical pieces. My dilemma is that looking at the house of the removal she has huge doubts, then the situation gets worse and worse - until it becomes comic and manageable. I think some people are better at managing disaster than doubt - it brings out their survival instincts, spirit of the Blitz and all that. In doubt we might pull apart, in crisis we hopefully pull together. Come to think a bout it, we moved into this house with the rats and the damp and the Oh My God it's huge and smelly and we can't afford it, then we had a car accident, husband nearly died, children were injured and I got the house in its proper perspective, so it is autobiographical after all!

Talking about the house, Hallowe'en is around the corner, and the season of spending and feasting isn't far behind that. As pagans, the whole time gets a bit more significance, so a lot of cooking today and tomorrow and a bit of playing about. But seriously, the reason I started this blog is as part of my campaign to find something beyond motherhood for my next two or three decades, so this Hallowe'en (or Samhain to my pagan friends) is important. I'm thinking and planning for the masters as well - something to do next year that will give me structure beyond now. It's nice to have writing ambitions beyond getting published - but to write really well, and hopefully get published. So, radio plays for the BBC are a starting point!

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

OCA course feedback

Well, that was a relief. With two assignments in for marking I started to get very insecure! The OCA course (which is brilliant, by the way, especially if you're coming new to/or back to writing) uses exercises called projects, then you hand in 5 pieces of work over the year, each with a 1000 word commentary. Assignment 3 was a 1000 word character sketch, a 1500 word short story and a 1000 word commentary - and you are marked on all of it!

The character sketch send me bonkers, I hate description and very thinly set my fiction, so 1k word description of someone was a struggle. So I made it into a scene in a story:

The two articles in the paper were four pages apart: the inquest and the obituary. One, full of judgements about the neglect of the pub’s owners, workers and patrons talking and drinking as an old man suffered a stroke and slowly died in the corner. The other full of love for the regular of thirty eight years, who had celebrated anniversaries and birthdays; children and grandchildren; good friends. The inquest had concluded, Duncan Anderson died by natural causes. The defiant obituary had concluded, he had died of a broken heart.
Julie folded the paper over at the obituary, flattened it down, and left it on corner of the oak bar. Customers would want to see the write up, even if they had helped write it. The picture of Duncan did him little justice, he was always camera shy. Maggie came out better, barely reaching his chin, smiling at the camera, thin hair neatly brushed back and pinned into a small bun, her hand lost in his.
The barmaid, Denise was already in, shaking off the drizzle onto the flagstones. ‘Want me to light the fire, love?’ Julie had put it off, Duncan had always come in and put a match to the paper, sticks and logs in the pub’s inglenook. He was like a child, the orange glow lighting up his grey, bushy hair, his thick eyebrows. He used to say Maggie wouldn’t let him light the fire at home, called him a pyromaniac just because he once set fire to some washing she was hoping to air in front of the wood burner.
Harry, the landlord, came in with a tray. ‘Is that the paper?’
Julie took a cloth and started polishing the still warm glasses, the squeak of the clean cloth echoing around the dark bar as Denise and Harry bent over the paper.
‘The Doc gave evidence at the inquest.’ Harry waved at the paper. ‘Is that in there too?’
‘We all gave evidence.’ Julie could feel her throat closing, a harsh note in her voice.
‘Well, we know the truth, don’t we love?’ Harry put an arm round her broad shoulders, briefly squeezed. Julie looked across at the empty, scratched leather chair by the fire. ‘The doc wrote the bit about Maggie, I never knew Dunc was so much younger than her.’
‘They met down at the Big Wheel Café, on the common.’ She lined up the glasses on the shelf, ran a duster over the brass fisherman’s lamps beside the spirit bottles. ‘She got TB when she was at school, spent some time in hospital. She used to say, she was left on the shelf, so she went to work as a waitress. She only got talking to Duncan because she couldn’t understand his accent when he ordered a cuppa.’
‘Was it Aberdeen?’
‘Arbroath.’ She touched the grainy picture in the paper with a finger, covering his deep-set eyes, so crinkled with laughter lines they almost disappeared when he smiled. He had organised her daughter’s brownie camp. He had sung behind her, two places to the left and one back, in the church choir. He had missed an E at her wedding. She walked over to the coat rack by the door and hesitated.
‘Go on, Julie, just for today. They will be a few in to pay their respects.’ Denise stood by the wingchair, one slim hand out.
Julie folded the scratchy, woollen seaman’s jacket over her arm. Despite the months of hanging up, it still smelled like Duncan, green sea, wet dog and the ghost of tobacco. It was moulded by his wide shoulders, one button hanging by a different coloured thread. Denise laid it reverently in the wing chair, as the sticks began to crackle and catch in the fireplace.
‘Tatty old thing, he always swore it saved his life in the merchant navy.’ At Harry’s curious look Julie continued. ‘One trip, out to Oslo with car parts I think, they got caught up in a terrible storm, he nearly got hypothermia, one of his mates got frostbite. He always said that coat saved him. It’s a submariners coat, it was his dad’s. Him and his brother were in the Royal Navy. They wouldn’t take Dunc because one of his legs was too short.’
Julie looked around, suddenly seeing Duncan everywhere. The barstool second to last bore the scars of encounters with Duncan’s built up shoe. His photograph holding a seabass (4lb 6oz third prize Parcombe pier fishing competition, 1994) was up on the noticeboard. His darts were up on the high shelf above the board where the local teams competed.
‘Morning all.’ A tall man in a suit smiled at Harry, nodded at the women. ‘I’ve come in to buy a bottle of whiskey to put on the bar. Give everyone who wants one a free tot on me, Harry. I’ll be over once the antenatal surgery is over. I think we need to remember Duncan as we knew him, after the write up of the inquest.’
Julie brushed the back of her fingers against one itchy eye, was surprised to find it wet. ‘We did the right thing, didn’t we, Doctor James?’
‘We did.’ His voice had authority, a conviction. ‘And we told the truth at the inquest. Duncan had a stroke, and he died. There wasn’t much we could have done about it, even if we had called an ambulance. Since Maggie’s death, all Duncan wanted was to be with his friends. He chose not to go to hospital. We were all there. We respected his wishes. We were good friends.’
Julie could almost feel Duncan’s cold hand, the fingers stained orange from his pipe, nails short on his stubby fingers, unable to grip hers. His eyes, deep set, deep green, looking into hers, not afraid, just holding hers. The doctor had been talking to him, soothing, reassuring, but Julie had felt as if it were just her and Duncan, locked in together for the two hours of his dying. Then she had taken a breath and he had not.
‘We were his family.’

I didn't give it a title, but my tutor felt it worked well, as a character sketch of someone I who wasn't even there. It's a pedestrian piece about an artificial subject but I liked the contrast between the obit and the inquest reporting in the paper, and so did my tutor. And it's very short on adjectives and adverbs!

My short story was better received, partly because I took a moral dilemma and twisted it around. My aim was to take the impossible - deliberately killing a child - and make it seem understandable on some level. My tutor liked it, even was disappointed when the child didn't die, so got into the story as intended. She managed to pick up my addiction to adverbs though, slowly, softly, gently, carefully, momentarily all being called superfluous. She's right, I tried taking them out. Worked fine. Rats! I don't even see them half the time.

One thing she did say (and the reason I'm not floating it here) is that she thought it would work well as a radio play. That stumped me, because the one literary form I have no interest in (except maybe life writing) is radio, because I can't stand it. They say you are a visual, kinetic or an aural learner - I am completely kinetic and visual, if I can't see it or do it, I'm lost (and rapidly bored). So books on tape, radio programmes, are impossible for me. But, over the years, I have been told many time that my dialogue pieces would work well on radio. A363 includes radio in part of the coursework, it does rather suggest I should at least have a look.

So I'm going to have a go! She's suggested the BBC writer's room website and the My Story project, too. More work - I'm swamped but obsessed - and that's without teaching science or worrying about the Chaucer.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Not writing

Now I've spent another day not really writing, though I did start rhyming from the BRB. I feel bad about not writing, and it's scary because I'm worried I will just lose momentum completely and go back to weeks of not writing. What I have done is talk to a friend about her exploration of English Literature and it reinforced how much better other people's books and poems are now I know a bit more about how they are written. I am starting to see the armature of novels and poems, how they work. That helps me try and make mine work better too, though I'm not really there yet, it's beginning to come home to me. I'm reading short stories and more literary novels, and getting them, giving them more time to catch my interest.

On another note, my sad days are over for another year and I'm looking forward again to November, and going away, and the whole month of December, which I try to keep completely free but already has an eye appointment in. I have more visitors still to come, the presence of all the kids, and all is well. We are cooking and washing up for 11 again though - takes up a bit more time than usual...

Friday, 23 October 2009

Looking back

I'm surprised by how far I have come in a few months. I'm writing fluently, yesterday I didn't write and I feel antsy about it, feel I ought to get something solid down now, despite getting ready for visiting friends. I have decided I ma never going to sit at my desk and go through my books, so have made a space for my BRB and my notebook next to the sofa, in the warm.

I have moved on from adjectives. Finally, I get it, they are overused in a lot of books, they are shorthand, they don't transfer the idea in my head to the idea in someone else's very well. All this while trying to convince no.1 son of this. Poetry is becoming a bit of a problem because it sucks me in and I can't sleep, so spend nights either writing or sleeping badly. Unfortunately, once I have written a draft, I really need to put it away and wait for a few days before taking any good stuff. In between - I sleep badly. It just rumbles on in my head, odd phrases and sentences. You can probably get pills for this... But deep down, I love doing the poetry, even though I started this course very nervous of it. I have no real problem with imagery, my problem comes when I look at a poem and have no idea if it's any good or not. Will someone else understand/like it? I'm beginning to wonder if the answer might be 'How much should I care?'. Certainly the BRB is going that way!

The other triumph of this course, for me, is that I now have a notebook brimming with ideas, freewrites, drafts, printed short stories and so on. Lovely rich source material - and I have already half filled my first book! And the garden looks very Autumnal, and the house is tidy and cleanish, I'm almost on top of the laundry, and my week is full and satisfying. On to TMA 02, the first draft of which is bubbling in it's incontinent adjective laden early form now. Hopefully it will be away before December so I can enjoy a month of celebrations and our few days away at Centre Parcs. Now - do I take my course work with me?

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Leonie and poetry

It's that time again, the leaves are turning and the 23rd of October is creeping up on me. My daughter Leonie died eighteen years ago - in August - but I grieve for her on the 23rd of October because her father died a year before, on that date. So I lost the two of them ten months apart, leaving me, Scary Spaniel and Smudge to somehow carve out a new, and completely different life for each other. So, every October I dream about her, get miserable and don't talk about it. This time, I'm going to write about her, talk about her, get it out there. Leonie was born in 1984 when I was in my early twenties, just a kid really, though I thought otherwise at the time. My first baby had been stillborn and I had been seriously ill, so ill that I was told I would never be able to have a child. Steve and I were very very young and optimistic, so we went again anyway, and Leonie was on her way. This time I got past the point where Robin had died, only to find the baby had spina bifida. We were told she would probably be stillborn, would have an enormous head and would die soon after birth if she was alive. Anyway, three hours after I was induced a month early, Leonie was born, alert and well, with a big bump on her back.

Steve and I decided to give her the best possible chance (though against medical advice - in fact, if another surgeon hadn't told our consultant that Leonie couldn't be saved, he wouldn't have tried). Anyway, she did very well for 3 years, paraplegic but unstoppable, bright as a button and dangerously extrovert. Then she started to get ill, and a benign tumour was eventually found over her brainstem. They tried to operate when she was four, but left her comatose for months and brain damaged for life. As the pressure grew in her head life became difficult, and she could no longer understand what was going on. Until she got to 8, and her father died suddenly, when she decided it was time to let go, and with great dignity and love, she kissed us all, told us all she loved us, and slowly died.

And my whole life has changed. But few people in my life remember her, or Steve for that matter. So now I wonder whether to take a little of my own medicine and use narrative therapy to find those memories and work on the feelings and maybe grieve better. They say you never get over losing a chid, you just grow around it. But it leaves a scar, and sometimes when you try and do somthing, the scar gets in the way. So, I'm going to have a go at writing some poems about her, even if they are so self indulgent and sentimental I keep them very private.

But if you're out there, little lion, and reading blogs, I still love you and miss you.

Monday, 19 October 2009

A215 CD1

Well, I spent the morning in the library and it's a brilliant place to study. I listened to the second and third authors on CD1 of the course and found them so inspiring. When I was 78,000 words into the last novel I found I had made some serious errors in the multiple third person voices I was using. Basically, I should have included the main bad character's POV, probably first person, rather than trying to see him through other, less vivid characters. The third author describes how she writes a first draft intuitively, and doesn't worry about POV until the major rewrite. It was nice to find an author (Stevie Davies) who doesn't plan too much in advance until 2nd draft. I've been trying to plan and organise my novels with zero success - because I start with a character and see what happens, where they lead me. If I try and plot I go blank, I need to 'talk' to the characters.

I loved Andrew Greig's approach to the past, researching it, that is. He uses items and photos to immerse himself in what he calls 'sympathetic magic' on the CD, absorbing the past through osmosis as well as doing traditional research. So far, this course is so rich, I've worked through Chapters 1-14 and am enjoying going back, doing more versions of the exercises, building my poetry as well as writing short stories (I've written 12 since I got the Big Red Book in July. The only form I haven't enjoyed and found came fluently is the haiku (I haven't used the clustering that much,either). I'm working through the Stephen Fry book and reading Natalie Goldberg's 'Writing down the Bones'. I'm more than halfway through a notebook I now take everywhere, and I write every day. I must be turning into a writer...

I've ordered a book from each of the authors on CD 1 except Maggie Gee's (I really don't fancy her books much, I might have a look in the library).I'm reading much more widely than I did. I'm reading more critically than I did too,seeing more of the bones of the book, the choices that have been made to write it. I have a draft of a short story (though rather pedestrian plot) and am looking for other ideas. Back to 500 words a day habit, even if just blogging. Good discipline.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

I'm getting creative!

It's weird that writing has made me more creative generally. I was completely stalled yesterday, having sent off two assignments on consecutive days I felt like I have been editing and tweaking for years and haven't produced anything that original for ages. Then TMA02, which is to write a complete short story of 2,200 (which seems like a funny length) made me feel like I'm devoid of plotlines.

Anyway, new day - new story! Or, two to be exact, one based loosely on my parents' experiences of moving into a new house and being inundated with cows one morning, the other about the challenge or diving in competitions. Both using what I know from experience or have developed from experience of reading/talking to people.

The challenge with the first one is to write about moving house in a less obvious, linear way. I still prefer third person, but anchored in one person's point of view (POV). I'm toying with the crisis being a row the day after they move, when they doubt their decision to buy a fixer upper, then go back to the stress of the actual move, that caused the row, then maybe end with resolving a bigger crisis at the end (garden full of cows). Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to sort things out, get a perspective. Anyway, that's they way I'm writing it at the moment. My main concern in the commentary, but hopefully i will get useful pointers in the feedback from the tutor.

The diving piece is more biographical, but looking at the nature of fear, and overcoming it. We are often exposed to moments of drama that leave us with mini flashbacks, and I wanted to look at the effect seeing a diver have an accident would have on a teenager years later. Doesn't sound very exciting, does it? I am making her think about this on the high board, and if you're scared of heights, hopefully the descriptions will be tense, but I'm not sure it will work for people who don't mind heights!

Anyway, back to tidying the garden while husband cleans windows, while the buzzards wheel overhead and my chickens are loose!

Friday, 16 October 2009

OCA assignment 3 away!

Thank whoever's listening, assignment 3 for the OCA is winging its way to my tutor. I had to write a 1000 word character sketch, which ended up more as a storyish scene. The fiction piece I had to write was 1500 words, and while I had a first draft easily, getting it to where it is now took ages! On the plus side, I'm using both courses to improve my writing. The really difficult bit was the 1000 word commentary I'm supposed to write. Having wrestled with only 300 words and a strict format for A215, I found it really difficult to reflect for 1000 words even though I had more material. My OCA tutor had previously commented on my addiction to adjectives, so I'm trying to show more than tell, but even in the final read through I found several I couldn't account for. I'm finally very happy with the short stories I'm writing though, which is good news as I have to do one for A215 in a couple of months. Now I'm just waiting for inspiration for a plot to hit me. I'm reading Karen Maitland at the moment I really enjoyed the Owl Killers, and she used many first person accounts but a linear approach to the time, so you see the whole story in fragments, from many points of view, some quite alien, like the views of religious people in a community, like nuns. I've just started Company of Liars, again set in the same time frame as the Chaucer project that the kids are doing. I've always been a bit cautious of first person, but it can be so intense, especially where your narrator has an unusual perspective (or is barking mad). Great stuff.

For other news, apart from having seventeen pots of sloppy jam that just won't set, chickens that won't stop laying and moult even though they are going bald, and two courses on the go, I am looking at next year. There is a masters in creative and critical writing in Winchester that looks right for me, although I like the Portsmouth MA in creative writing as well. The downside is, I live in Devon ... Two of the boys are looking at studying at Sparsholt college near Winchester next year, so if I can go down with them and all rent somewhere for a few months maybe we can all study together. It would be really good to spend more time with my brothers, my mother-in-law is ill and old and could do with more visits, and I can concentrate on writing for 9 months. Maybe even rewrite the novel, which got positive feedback from the publisher even though the ending was weak (their words, mine was crap!) I have a BSc and MSc, but in psychology, so they might want time to do the A363 first - but then I miss the window of opportunity of going down with the boys. And I think they do need me there, especially Isaac! That would leave the first mate at the helm though - maybe the jam will set and the chickens moult for him. It would be a big, fun adventure after the gloom of the accident, anyway. Possibilities, possibilities.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

TMA01 sent - am I mad?

OK, this doesn't make a lot of sense, but I had a moment of confidence and threw myself into writing the commentary for TMA01 - and sent it by eTMA. You see, in the good old days, I would have had several opportunities for second thoughts and doubts before walking the mile down to the post office. Then I could have opened it up, found the two spelling mistakes and one typo that lurk in everything I do even if I've reviewed it a hundred times - I could have given it to various family members, even though they know less about writing than I do. I could have sent it in 4 days late, like normal people, not sixteen days early. Now I am at the mercy of my tutor. Many years ago, on my first courses with the OU, I had two courses on the do (K260 and ED209, if I remember correctly). I sent my TMA's off on the same day, a few days early, and then the fun began. One tutor marked each assignment as it came in, with reams of notes, and I got it back within the week. The other used to wait until the last one had come in (sometimes two weeks late) and then would slowly mark the whole lot. I think mine was probably last. I barely got it back in time for the second TMA, and then I couldn't read any of the seventeen words he had scrawled in hieroglyphics on the PT3 form, which was a faint carbon copy to start with.

So now I'm wondering, what will my present tutor be like? And, worse, how will I cope if I get a terrible mark? A terrible mark, you understand is between 59 and about 66. If I get 40+ or even (gulp) less than 40, I know I have loads to learn and my tutor will help me out with useful pointers. On the other hand, if I get 67 or 77 or 87 (gulp) I know I've got the right idea, I am capable of good marks and writing good stuff and if I do badly I'm just not giving it my best shot. But if you pour heart and soul into a piece of work until you can't think how to improve it - and it scores 59 - you just aren't very good.

The thing is, I really need to be good at writing. I started out with the idea of a search and a freewrite that I'm very pleased with. Then I wrote a short story from the perspective of the person waiting to be searched for and found. Then I channelled something darker and let her ramble with hypothermia after the dinghy she and her husband were in gets overturned in the sea, late at night, a frequent cause of deaths where I come from. When I was a teenager, I saw a body being pulled in by the police boat, the stench trailing behind it, and the sight has stayed with me. I wondered what it would be like to be one of two people who ends up in the sea, where the real enemy is cold, being the one with the life jacket. It wrote itself into a short story, complete with happyish ending, but I'm not sure it's anything like my tutor is expecting. Worse, it wrote itself, and the narrator has been unwilling to let me mess with it too much. I get the impression that if I tried to really move it around she would slowly sink below the surface in protest and it will be one of those dark, dark short stories that I don't like. Who knows.

I've been playing around with the material in the freewrite as well, it does lend itself to a story poem. Poetry is addictive, turn back now if you want a good night's sleep or the ability to relax in front of the telly. I'm loving it but I'm just not able to switch off the sensitivity to words, phrases, rhyme, structure, emphasis, the music of words. Even when playing scrabble. Now I have to get on with TMA02, because I really need December off.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Freewriting more and more

After Saturday's freewrite and with chapter 13 full of freewrites for raw material for poems, I've been rambling in my increasingly full notebook. The one I'm working on at the moment just splurged out onto the page this morning and has haunted me all day. It was an animal I looked after when I was just 18 and newly married. I hesitate to call him a pet, he was a wild animal who had decided, through some identity crisis, that he was my baby or partner, and lived with us for three years.

Jackdaws on the chimney, jackdaw in my hand, on my shoulder, whispering into my ear. turning sharp beak to look at me, one grey alien circle after the other. Butter pecked a hundred times, pools of melted butter vomit on the window sill, bad JJ, light reptile legs holding, click clack claws land on the back of a chair. Hairy feathers project over a greasy beak, 'Chack' in greeting, beak deep in breast feathers for me to brush fingers over his crown, tickle soft feathers, croon to him. Part of me, wild playful mischief-full part of me, constrained by the new house, new marriage. Me and JJ wind in our hair, wild in our feathers, barefoot in the frost, staring down people, not caring, rough woollen man by my side, walking by me but not quite with me, drawn and repelled by my madness, my freedom, my rage, my passion. I am bold dark sweeps of colour, long dark symphonies, crude scary words, the wordless poet in him is drawn to that. He reaches under my clothes on the stormy beach his teeth grazing my lips, clamped on my neck and I am shivering as much with cold as with anticipation. I love it, the power of the storm, but he's sorry for the tiniest bruise. We walk along the cliff, bird and woman, deciding whether to jump, fly, picking berries, calling to the jackdaws dancing overhead. JJ looks, but clings to my shoulder, sheltered in my neck.

The freewrite captures, for me, part of my past but also my sister's point of view, bipolar and prone to extremes of passions and actions. Now I have to turn it into a poem with a syllable count, but I think it will end up in free form. I'm so enjoying the poetry bit of the book, and thank goodness for Stephen Fry's book explaining the way!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

A215 dayschool

Saturday was time for the first of two day workshops for A215. The focus was on releasing creativity and the first chapters of the BRB (Big Red Book). It was a rollercoaster, with a wide range of experiences and approaches from the students. The tutor was excellent, very supportive and full of enthusiasm for writing and creativity itself. I'm inspired to work harder, and it's been good reviewing my TMA draft after the workshop. I'm working on replacing adjectives with verbs, looking at original uses of words. We briefly looked at commentaries, enough to get me going anyway! The downside is, it's two hours plus each way. We now have to work on doing critiques of each other's work, though I'm not sure exactly what piece of work we are supposed to critique, the freewrites or the 200 words about it. I think of freewrites as the raw material, rather than any kind of finished work. I don't think I can afford to have it critiqued, but maybe the commentary will be very useful to work on.

Meanwhile, my plan to take a year off from family life to do an MA is starting to seem more feasible. Now all I have to do is go to Winchester and check out the course!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Writer's notebook

Thank God for the notebook, on a day like this exhaustion sets in and inspiration disappears. I've never been able to keep a proper notebook, mostly because immediately after I wrote something I usually thought it was complete rubbish. The fragments that survived seemed so much better after a week or two, or months and years in some cases. Now nothing gets thrown away and it just sits there, waiting for me to take the odd 'diamond of the dustheap' as Virginia Woolf called them. I've been really trying to stick to the course and am going back again and again to the early chapters of the Big Red Book.

Last night, even though I haven't finished TMA01's commentary or TMA02, I started the poetry section. I sat up working on it for hours, completely drawn in. We had an exercise to do, looking at a photograph, and all sorts of images and phrases sprang to mind. The weird thing is, I found myself writing from a male character's point of view, and historical at that. Not to mention the character's romantic interest in the girl in the picture! So, after seven pages of the poetry section I'm writing erotic verse. I couldn't sleep for hours,wound up by words, then had to get up and find Chaucer again for the home educated group. Hopefully I can spend some quality time tomorrow to indulge my new poetical side!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Assignment 3 project 29

This course is divided into projects, little activities that look easy and then take a week to do. I have to send this project in with the assignment, the one due in on September 30th (ooops!). The idea is that you write a character sketch describing a person in his/her context, using movement, voice, history, physical characteristics, personality etc.

I started out with a bit of a cluster (look at me, A215 is rubbing off!) and ended up with an old guy called Duncan from Abroath. It was rubbish, so I rewrote it again. Finally it ended up as a remembrance of the man after his death and inquest. I drew on real life, when I worked in a hospice we had a patient who liked to be delivered to the pub then picked up in the evening, ready for his medication and nursing care. We often wondered, what happened if he died down there, how would the pub respond? So I made Duncan recently widowed, and a constant visitor to the pub, which is now his home. When he has a stroke, the patrons and staff of the pub decide to respect his wishes and let him sit and see what happens. It was fun to create him entirely through the pub, the memories of the pub's people and the obituary in the paper. I'm not sure if it works or meets the brief of the course, but I kind of liked it. Then I gave it to Kez (creative no. 1 son) and he pointed out that I hadn't provided any sort of setting apart from it being a pub. Anyway, a few brief descriptive words later it is an 'olde worlde' smugglerish pub. Thanks, Kez

I'm cautiously looking at doing an MA at the moment, as we have an odd window in our family life, where I might be able to get away with two of the boys for a year and educate ourselves (some more). Plus I have the novel to work on ... Life is complicated as always, and the leaves are turning and falling, my favourite time of the year, not to mention the busiest.

Friday, 2 October 2009

OCA Assignment 3 part 2 and Leonie

OK, having given up on the first short story part of assignment 3 I have now approached it in a different way. I wrote a short story for a competition about 2 years ago, which I was very proud of at the time, but now I'm looking at it I'm cringing. The Book (BRB of A215) has been quite scathing on the importance of showing not telling, and on the importance of voice. I wrote it as a first person monologue, quite poetical thoughts in the character's head. Basically, she's come to the end of her tether and tried to top someone and kill herself. She's failed to kill herself and is now explaining the moment when she snapped. What she doesn't know is that the person survived.

My new version is completely rewritten, in a third person interview from the police officer's point of view, therefore less poetical but much more the readers' POV. It's in it's first draft chaos but is much more promising. My one worry is, will I look back in a few months and cringe?

Another problem is that the experience of 'snapping' or getting very close to it is a bit close to home. My eldest child, Leonie, was severely disabled for the last four years of her life. The crushing weight of work and responsibility of being a carer can drive anyone under. I was lucky to have the support of close family and even closer friends, and I barely made it through. This is me thinking, 'what if...?'

Monday, 28 September 2009

OCA Assignment 3

I have to write a character sketch of an invented person, even if he does resemble someone I might know. Easy enough, I thought, but I always find these exercises strangely remote and detached so I've been playing with the idea of coming to know this bloke through the opinions of others, expressed after his death. Naturally, being a crime writer, his death is just a tiny bit controversial. It's really about the tight communities that revolve around pubs. So I've gone from struggling with a few hundred words of dry analysis to a whole short story, complete with resident mystery!

The other part of the assignment is a piece of fiction including a substantial bit of dialogue - much harder to get inspired at the moment but I'm working on it. So for I've come up with a confrontation between two people, a child in a posh school who just doesn't fit in, and the deputy head teacher who is trying to keep them from getting expelled. The twist is the head came from a similar background, but the dilemma is, how much of your past do you share with a child or for that matter, anyone? I'm writing 'what I know' at the moment, as a similar conversation took place for a different reason at my school. I'm finding A215 is coming in useful everywhere, and the OCA course has really got me thinking. The deadline is 30th September, which is beginning to feel a bit tight.

The A215 course has a message forum but frankly, they are a lot less helpful than the facebook lot. I got told off pretty promptly for, after reading a dozen messages along the lines of 'can't wait for the course!!!', suggesting that they a) get on with the course and enjoy it and b) get a little ahead. I was spanked for 'making people feel inadequate if they aren't ahead' - even though my critic was herself doing the same thing. One thing I have learned about distance learning, children, is always, always get ahead if you can - in 8 months there will be 'flu, sick children/parents/pets, extra workload, holidays, birthdays and just moments of little motivation. These are not allowed for in the course!

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Lost my passwords and found poetry

I love my children dearly, I usually love my husband, I have a soft spot for my cats and am kind to my chickens. But thanks to the generosity of my eldest child I can't find the essential scrap of paper which represents my passwords and logins, even for this humble effort. Two and a half hours later, I have managed to log in to my own blog. It took me 45 minutes to get on the OU site, despite doing it OK a week ago. Sometimes, life is just pants. Still, how lucky am I that eldest child not just tidied the house but sorted out the books, as well! I'll write the passwords down somewhere more sensible. (note to self: in the flowery notebook by the stamps - assuming you can find the stamps or the notebook - or the desk...)

That aside, I have been emailed some amazing poems from a friend of my son's, a lad I've known for many years. I am quietly astonished at the creativity of teenagers, then I look at my own efforts at the same age, and there it is again, all that amazing freedom and imagery. Sure, a few cliches and not much structure, but powerful words, from big feelings. How did my poetry get to be so pedestrian? If I let my emotions out I just get sulky or sentimental now - all my emotions were primary as a teenager. Full on hatred, joy, love and rage. Now I get pissed off or frustrated, jealous or disappointed. Did I die and no-one tell me? Maybe I just got polite. One of the poems I have written recently was about my sister, who died ten years ago. Actually, that did have a bit of life in it. Maybe there's hope yet.

My A215 course is progressing, I've actually done the first assignment and am now doing the OCA's third one. For A215 I had to write a freewrite about 'a search' amongst other things, and wrote about a rescue - from the perspective of the searchee. It had to be no more than 750 words long - and because I'm a bit perfectionist, I wanted a whole story rather than just a bit of prose. Pretty hard in the word limit. Now I have to somehow produce an insightful commentary on it - in an even tighter squeezed 300 words. As I'm most of the way through part 2 - writing stories - I can't help editing in the light of what I've learned about voice and perspective, dialogue and structure etc. But I'll have to comment on chapters 1-4.

The OCA one expects us to write a piece of fiction that is dependant on dialogue - and I'm absolutely blocked. I started writing a bit about when I was carpeted by the deputy head for using 'language unsuitable for a grammar school' and was made to do elocution lessons. I remember the moment vividly, standing on a desk screeching in a wide vocabulary straight from the big council estate where I was brought up. I remember she sneered down at me like I was an insect, but the threat of my parents being told was enough to get me under control. She hated me - I was always doing something I shouldn't and she just couldn't prove it was me who started the rumour/scratched her car/stole the syringes from chemistry. The last one got the police called in because syringes were in short supply for addicts then. I wanted them for an experiment I was doing with my home made chemistry set. I had hidden them in an outside drain, to be picked up when the coast was clear. I just don't know how to fictionalise it!

Anyway, the poems have started me thinking about my own poetry again. Next section in A215 is poetry, should get me going. I'm about 10 weeks ahead at this point - determined to have December off. So, thanks, Joe.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Starting A215

I had just come back from camping with lots of home educated children and their parents. I was sunburned (yes, in 2009!), ached from head to toe from clinging to a slowly failing airbed parked on a slope, and was grubby the way kids get grubby. Ground in mud, socks that had done 48 hours because I had to double up with the cold night, hair tangled in the wind. But warming me through the worst of the cold was the thought that my materials for A215 were being dispatched. Sadly, they arrived when I was away, so I found myself looking at a DHL card, on a Friday afternoon, with no real prospect of seeing the magic box until Monday.

Needless to say, in our house true love is defined by one of us as apple crumble, sex without the palaver of a shower first and always being allowed to take a guitar on holiday; and by the other as getting back into the car after a hot, slow journey with 5 children who haven't had a shower for days, and picking up a parcel from DHL. Anyway, he did, so I sat on the sofa, and we opened the box like the two OU addicted children that we are. We Ooohed and Aaahed at the study guide, the assignment book and the Big Red Book. They even smelled good. He's just finishing A214 (the music course) and has his last TMA, the really hard one that's compulsory AND you have to get at least 30% on it, and he has an exam 3 weeks later. The pleasure of leafing through an assignment booklet you don't have to do is intoxicating.

Anyway, two days on and smugly 7 weeks ahead on the course, I looked at the first TMA. And something in me just stalled. I went from having a writer's notebook for the first time in my life, full of inspiration and ideas, to being eleven years old and facing the old battleaxe that taught me English in my first year of secondary school. 'Learning to swim' was one of the first stories I had to write for her, and as she had no sense of humour and I was too young to realise that, I wrote a story about jumping into the pool, losing my swimsuit and so on. I got a C. It's from that position, clutching my shiny new maroon exercise book already scarred with a C and a lot of red ink that I am facing TMA01.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

OCA Assignment 2 feedback

I'm beginning to realise one of the reasons I'm so afraid of feedback is I'm afraid someone, at some point, is going to say: 'but you're not a very good writer'. Unlike most things I study, I'm emotionally attached to writing, I really want to be a good one. And while I recognise that lots of the skills asociated with these courses are useful if not essential, underneath it all there has to be some talent. So I was heartened by my tutor's feedback, that while she could find loads of things to improve my work, at least the basic imagination and voice were there. Cunningly concealed behind too many adjectives and adverbs, perhaps, but at least the story was there. It has enthused me for the next part of the course - describing people and groups. It overlaps with something in A215 so I'm doing both lots of exercises together.

Another thing that I found helpful was my tutor's explanation that she found describing places naff and difficult too, wanting instead to jump into action and dialogue. I hope my OU tutor is on the same sort of wavelength as me, a few former students have had experiences of not hitting it off with their tutors. Creativity is subjective, even if the tutor is marking the skills and techniques, some aesthetic appreciation is involved too. Hopefully I won't get a tutor who loves very modern poetry or clever literary obscure fiction.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

'The Ode Less Travelled'

This book by Stephen Fry was recommended to me by a student of the Open University course A215. I think it's brilliant! There's something so elitist about the way some people are taught poetry, as if, like Latin, it belongs in private schools and to the 'well read'. I'm loving the book, which takes you through the structure of poetry very quickly - and makes you write from the first few pages. I couldn't see the point of writing iambic pentameter (the only form I knew at all - and that only because it's Shakespearish) but now it rings in my head when I'm writing - as do other rhythms. I'm amazed at how, once you get the metre right, you can play around with trochees and weak endings and all sorts of substitutions. I've been reading poetry out loud, and beginning to hear the rhythm of modern poetry as well - even if it's more subtle. And re-reading favourite poetry has enthused me again. Suddenly I'm very critical of all the poems I have ever written because they don't sound right. A few years ago I played around with Sibelius and found I could just compose by ear - not necessarily very well - because I had listened to so much music over the years. It just had to sound right. I have read many books of poetry but not aloud, not experimenting with the sound. It's starting to ring in my head when I read now, even if I can't read out loud because I'm in company. I recommend it enthusiastically!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Assignment 2

Well, that was hard! I've always known that I don't put much (enough) description in my fiction. It sounds a bit poetical to me, a bit poncy, but I leave too much out and my readers look puzzled after a few pages. "Where exactly is this?" is a common complaint. So I wrestled with the four exercises, how hard could describing a household object, a short journey, preparing a meal and being outside be?

Well, let me tell you, this did not come easily at all. My first notes for a short journey were from quick tour of the garden one evening. Immediately after we had moved house and nearly had an accident and my husband had nearly been killed... All of it kind of ran through the description. So, in the interests of quelling any emotional input, I turned it into a botanical description of the garden, killing any feelings. Two years on, having to redraft it, I cautiously put a bit of me back in it. Not the accident, but the sense of being in an alien landscape. Then I had to take out most of the abstract words and all of the unnecessary words. I'm quite pleased, not with the piece itself but with the improvement to it. So, here it is.

Unknown Garden

This is the evening walk I had fantasised for months, throughout the stressful months of packing and moving. I have never lived amongst hills and rocks before, being brought up on soft chalk and thick clays, red bricks and big skies. Here the landscape is hard, sharp against the sky. The valley rises on each side; long shadows fall on the dense scrub and trees that cling to bare, sheer slate. This is a place of sudden contours, cliffs falling like old walls into the fields below. The evening sun catches some planes and floods them with pinks and peaches.
The new place has its own sounds, alien, like an unexpected noise in a car’s engine. Over the constant shushing of the wind on the trees opposite the house, I can hear hundreds of birds on the threadbare oaks. They call, their replies echoing, sharp musical jackdaws against hoarse shouts of the rooks. Their combined cries rise to a roar when they throw themselves into the sky and curve around the valley. They quieten to a squabble for the best roost, black rags on a washing line. A cricket calls persistently from the ragged shrubs. A distant dog is magnified by the narrow valley, barks ringing and echoing. Seagulls shriek overhead, from a height where they must be able to see right over the town to the sea. Distant buzzards call more plaintively to each other, as they circle high in the pink and purple tinged sky. Pigeons soothe from the trees. Beneath it all, the steady hum and bubble of the brook that runs alongside the road, at the bottom of the drive.
The heat from the day’s sun still radiates from the stone wall of the house, the warm dusty smell novel after cool, shaded bricks of the last house. The path changes under thin soles, soft with thick grass in places, hard sculpted stone in others. When I reach the drive, my feet crunch into the slate gravel. Grass grows amongst the stones, dotted with tall weeds, untouched since the move. Flowers have tipped over into autumn and smell sour, slightly earthy, slightly bitter.
I walk slowly along the path, taking in tall shrubs falling under their own weight into the nettles and docks. Ragged seedlings of hawthorn and ash fight their way out of clinging bindweed. Old bramble leaves glow scarlet, a few purple berries remaining for the birds. At the end of the path, the sun becomes briefly visible from behind the two ancient pine trees that give the house its name. The yellow glow is balanced on the edge of the ridge at the end of the valley, on a line of young trees, its blaze obliterating a few of them as I shade my eyes. The gravel drive is covered with grey slate, as if flaked off the hillside. Looking back at the house, the windows are crimson with reflections of the sky; blind, impersonal eyes on the tiny troubles of its owners.
Between the sharp edge vertical stones of the retaining wall are sprigs of dry plants, withered but alive. The stone is cold and damp, but the soil is powder, the slightest touch sends puffs of dust into the air. Between the shrubs are rough hewn steps that lead to the herb garden. Fuchsia flowers bleed onto the first two steps, scarlet and purple, venous and arterial, glowing even in the fading light. Brambles arch across my cautious steps, thorns reaching from the planted borders. At the top, midges crowd in a rising, buzzing smoke, between the shrubs and the trees. The scents of oregano, thyme and chamomile are released as fallen branches are crushed underfoot. A bat flies overhead, as I turn and lean against a wall to look at the hillside opposite. Massed trees darken; the slow movements of a deer are silhouetted by the last of the light.

Monday, 3 August 2009


Just watching TV is inspiring at the moment. A couple of days ago I watched the Al Pacino documentary, 'Looking for Richard' and spent the next 24 hours with iambic pentameter running through my head. Now I watched the BBC series 'Messiah' and I'm drawn again to writing dialogue, telling a story literary through words rather than actions. I watched the first one (brilliant, full of surprises) but the second one got me critical of pace, the obviousness of the multiple murders and the way the police are always just a few minutes behind the villains. Suspense is powerful, but not when you know where and when to look.

It did make me think about the way I see stories; visually rather than hear them. I see in TV scenes, or film script much more than I ever thought I did, and I think the level 3 creative writing course might be a helpful progression to A215. It makes me want to rewrite 'Raging Softly', my most recent novel, and help it come alive in a more visual way. I know one of my weak point is description of place and people (well, I already know what they look like!). Perhaps translating what I 'see' more directly onto the page would be helpful.

Writing every day makes me think much more in words. It's the one thing I need to work on, because I'm very prolific when I have a writing habit. I find 1000 word minimum if I aim for 500, I'm competitive with myself. I had a pedometer at Christmas and became so committed to beating yesterday's score I ended up walking for miles - with a bad back - then doing another long walk in the evening. My back then firmly told me I couldn't do that any more and put me on the sofa for a few more uncomfortable weeks. So, a writing habit beckons. I end up doing it before bed, though, not very sociable, because it's so hard to get an hour or two without interruptions in the day. Perhaps the family need to get in the habit of my writing habit too!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Freewriting exercise for A215

I know I ought to be working on my prose pieces for the OCA course but haven't managed it yet. The freewriting brings up so much memory! I started with 'I Need Proof'...

...of aliens, gods, ghosts, anything really. I'm prepared to accept the subjective impressions of my my own eyes but no-one else's'. I don't even trust Russell's, really, it's easier to consider him misdirected or deluded than just accept his conclusions. Show me, prove it to me. I'm probably easily fooled too, but that's my permitted blind spot.

When I was a child, I saw flying saucers, or rather, unexplained lights in the sky. I hovered on the end of my bed, peering through horrible curtains that smelled slightly damp and dusty, and watched for ages. Looking, listening, blurry eyed with concentration. Then, fast, blue-white, small group of lights would move fast across the sky. Without any idea how big they were, I could not judge distance. I shivered in terror as much as excitement, looking over the black back garden, at almost the same level as the window sill. My sister slept softly on. I watched, vigilant for steps on the stairs, parent or alien, equally daunting. Sometimes, I would be wound so tight I would sleep under the bed. I still look out for the lights. They might be real, they might just exist in memory. But whatever they are, they belong to me, not the UFO world. They may be a delusion, but they are mine.

Saturday, 1 August 2009


Page 27 of The Book (the big red book of A215 not the Other Book) suggested some ideas for clustering, so I chose an apparently innocuous one of 'photo album'. Wow! I was going to do one of the others first but this one dragged my distinctively terrible handwriting all over the page. there's something seductive about not have to stay on the lines. Images popped into my head faster than I could write them down:

Pressed memoires like butterflies or flowers
Transitions like births and weddings with apprehension and happiness in equal measure
Smiles hiding lies
People pretending they don't hate having their picture taken
People who love their picture taken
People you don't recognise in family photos, with you
People who are dead but still smiling
Moments when I was younger, thought differently about the world
Emotions so important at the time but now gone

I'm going to do a freewrite from this cluster, see where it takes me.
I remember sorting through a dead relatives belongings, seeing moments when we were apart, how we don't see the other parts of that person's life at all and yet it goes on when we take our egocentric viewpoint away. Lost loves, intense feelings gone, dusty, faded, curled at the edges. Soon everyone who knows who the people are will be gone. Cryptic messages on the back. 'DB at Bourne.' 'Dad with B 1953'. 'Polly before wedding'. Some of these people are my family, some share my DNA, have touched my history. They are fixed in time like fossils in rock, buried under more layers of time, and dust, and folded, cracked photgraphs. Maybe they will be revealed later. Phony smiles, show-off smiles, deceitful smiles. Uncle Fred at the wedding with Gladys, but we all know he was shagging one of the bridesmaids. Her smile is bigger, too. Gladys looks like she's won but history awarded the dubious prize of my great uncle's body and half his wordly goods to the second bridesmaid from the left. Children sat on Uncle Jim's knee, one after the other. Now we know why. Sly smile from Uncle Jim. Solemn frowns on the faces of the children. One scowling child is trying to get away but his hard, tobacco scented arm gripped tightly. I think that was me. I love antique fairs, the boxes of crap left at the end. They often have photos, neither beautiful enough nor identifiable so of no value, but each one holds such a sepia story. Triumphs, loves, losses, lies.

Well, the process seems to work, even if it's unsettling! I have 'The end of the affair; 'getting older'; and 'suspicious' still to do.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Facing the empty page

I have got an old copy of the textbook for A215, with the idea that, for once, I will be weeks ahead on the course. I will therefore send in all my TMA's early. I always think this is going to happen, but I'm ignoring the fact that I am royally behind on the OCA course. In fact, I have a year's extension and I'm still struggling to get the work in!

There's a reason. Faced with an empty page I do what most people do, I hesitate. I look at my inky boots and the sheet of snowy perfection in front of and can't bear to despoil its blank loveliness. So I read the first few pages of A215 wisdom and The Book says other people do this - and have strategies to deal with it.

So, I did a cluster thingy (Gabriele Lusser Rico came up with this idea in "Writing the Natural Way, 1983) for 'empty page' and came up with some nice ideas. Despoil was one of the words that came up, in fact (see above). Others that came up several times were 'fail', 'mess', 'untidy' and 'distraction'. 'Lunch' also popped up more than once. 'Crap' made an appearance. I am afraid of the empty page. 'Fear' and 'fail' cropped up the most. Writing makes me feel exposed and vulnerable. But when I think that criticism will make me feel like I have failed, I start to doubt it. I don't fear other people's criticism as much as I dread my own. In psychological terms, like all of us, I internalised messages about failure and success - none of which seem very relevant to the creative process. Paper was expensive when I was a child, I now hoard it, I can't pass up a bargain. I take paper everywhere with me, on holiday, in my bag to the supermarket, even in the car. This makes no sense, I feel sick thirty seconds after trying to read anything in a moving vehicle. I must believe that anything I do to the empty page must be worse than just enjoying it's white lovely blankness.

So, I write better on the computer. That explains that. But I think conquering the page with nasty, messy, rainbow pens, will be very freeing and therapeutic. The Book suggests getting into a writing habit. (Last time I had one of these I wrote a novel in 3 months, so The Book may be onto something). So, I pledge that I will write 500 words every single day, even if it is complete rubbish, and I will despoil at least one perfect, beautiful shiny piece of paper doing it. Let's see how long it lasts.

Thursday, 30 July 2009


Freewriting is one of the ideas used in various courses and writing books. The idea is that by rambling, stream-of-consciousness-style, either randomly or around a central theme, you unlock all sorts of creativity. The problem is, mine turns into a rambling therapy. Yes, I had a stressful childhood, I've lost a few important people along the way but does it all have to surface when I have a pen in my hand?

I'm trying to focus on a less emotive or retrospective theme, and keep the focus on that, allowing feelings that are immediate and contemporary to float up. Turns out I'm crap at it, so lots more practice. I shall have a go later and put it up on here. Hmm.

Meantime, my incredibly cluttered life is being painfully unravelled. I realise that in the past I have sorted out and thinned books, clothes etc. but NEVER ENOUGH. I still have things in my wardrobe from several declutters - as yet unworn. having the house cluttered just makes me feel like I have to sort it all out before I can do anything else. So the sort out needs to be comprehensive. Skip sized, not three bin bag sized. And I need to get rid of some furnture - which is all full of unsorted. carefully retained crap. It all just needs to go. So much of it is crying out to be used, and I don't have the head space to write as it is without competing clutter whispering from drawers and cupboards. Lots of the crap is there from the move - two years ago. So, sorting out is the priority and a major upside is that we will be able to move into the master bedroom and the cold, dark room can be the guest room. It's all about self-esteem. Important though 22 year old daughter is, I'm realising we might be way more important. So, while husband's is away, I will sort out and throw out.

Ooh, was I freewriting?

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Half way through OCA 'Starting to Write'

I'm part way through the Open College of the Arts 'Starting to Write' course and am finding it strange. I'm a better writer than I think I am but I have no idea when I am going right or what I do wrong, so I thought a course would help. It turns out, I cut the emotions down when I edit, so my first drafts are better emotionally than the final drafts, which are much better English. Not entirely helpful when writing poetry! So now I have written 4 poems for my first assignment. I didn't know enough about poetry to say whether they were any good at all but my tutor said they were OK with some ideas for improvement (and a lot of pruning). The message was, less is more, so I will endeavour to cut out unnecessary words on my next batch. Here are three of them.

Spring again

A stone shelter in the winter garden,
Where he loved to sit, stick tapping
Some private rhythm of his own.
Rustic and cool, loneliness enstoned,
I gaze onto humming, sunlit spaces.
Ivy invades, explores the empty window frame,
While green hellebores in full flower tip into decay,
Awareness aroused, softened grief spreading with sunlight.
Ash trees spread still naked limbs to the sun,
An oasis of winter in the passion of spring,
Saps rising, yearning, vigour seeping back.
Emeralds and jades top fresh shoots,
Dogwood bark glows, yellows through red,
Rainbows tint winter greys with pastels and brights.
Bees attend new flowers, abandon the old,
Birds call dominance and allure from every tree,
Bumbles accept mute offerings from upturned flowers,
As spring slowly conquers the winter garden,
Transforms the ravaged landscape.

Meeting the QE2

Nan is on the QE2, crooked teeth and brittle blonde,
Crimpolene amongst silks, organdies, gauzes and tweeds.
Passengers pose, elegance gilded, jewelled and refined
Between vibrant hats and shiny shoes

The QE2, sleek, precise, shipshape in navy and white,
A greyhound among mongrels and mutts, ferries and tugs.
Nan waves in her pools-win fur, squinting into the crowd
Too vain to wear her council house glasses.

My sister, Marilyn

Fading light, first lines of death,
Drowning with each white hair, lost
In a torrent of sadness and shame.

Marilyn was exposed and exploited,
Conquered by beauty and sex,
Possessed by images and film,

My sister, exposed and exploited,
Was conquered by beauty and sex
Controlled by lustful, greedy men.

Sprawled on rank harbour mud.
Investigation, speculation, pull her away
Tear at our shared blood and bone.

They slipped into a mythic tale,
A fantasy of passion and princes.
Booze and pills drifted them away.

Overdosed on life and finally free,
Beautiful in a Welsh mortuary
She dreams of Marilyn.

Spring again is about losing my much loved father in law, and the winter garden at RHS Rosemoor. Meeting the QE2 drew on a childhood memory, and My sister, Marilyn is about my sister, whose life paralleled Marilyn Monroe's, down to her suicide.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Beginning A215

Well, after a couple of years of procrastinating, I have signed up for a creative writing course with the Open University, and am impatiently searching the internet for clues. Clues that will help me maintain the bubble of hope and optimism that getting a whole exercise book full of 'A's in English at school (1973) will create. "You're really good at writing, you should write a book!" Thanks, Grandma. Now I'm ready for someone else's opinion. As long as it's very, very gentle and kind. Encouraging. Having done a BSc with the OU I am fairly sure how to prepare for, and deliver on a science course. So I had a sneak look at 2008's assignment booklet and it's scary. This may turn out to be a bit of an adventure, for my self-esteem as well as my imagination.