Winter sports in the early morning

This was my OU exercise for the day:

“Set your alarm for tomorrow at least half an hour earlier than usual, go straight to your writing desk and begin.  Before you go to sleep, choose one word from the following: garden, child, library, love, car, winter holiday. When you wake, start to write about your chosen word.”

I chose ‘winter holiday,’ before I went to bed last night as directed, got up at 5:45 this morning and before brewing coffee or even having a wash started scribbling without much of a clue where I was heading.  I ended up producing a stream of consciousness on the subject of skiing, or specifically my not exactly successful attempts at learning the sport.

I started the piece off by saying I had no story to share, but clearly I did after all.  Such is the beauty of these exercises.  They encourage you to start writing, to just write anything, to free up the unconscious, to not wait to be inspired.  What I committed to my computer screen this morning may not be Jane Austen, but I feel a healthy sense of ‘getting it all out.’

I have posted the results of this exercise on here in my new OU Pieces section.

A lot of writers say they achieve their best work early in the morning.  Apparently it’s something to do with being in close proximity to their dreams!  I don’t know about that, but I certainly am a morning person, much more than I used to be at any rate.  In my dim and distant student days, I rarely saw mornings at all as midday lie-ins were my norm.  It’s a different story nowadays.

It was slightly surreal sitting there unwashed at the kitchen table (AKA my work desk) in my dressing gown and unsexy socks typing away.  There was something quite fun and faintly reckless about it too.

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OU Pieces

You will see I have started a new section ‘OU Pieces’ in which I shall be posting work I produce as part of my Open University course.

At the moment I have just started to share with you a few of the shorter activities we have been set (not all of them, of course – ‘Listen to track 4 on the accompanying audio CD,’ for example, is hardly going to be of interest to folks logging on to this blog).  As and when I do them, I will also be posting my longer assignments under this heading.

OU Activities

A few of the shorter activities I have worked through on the Open University Start Writing Fiction course.

 

1.  Write down 3 separate observations about the room you are in now.

Our kitchen
(Please make no comments about us living in a scutty house!!)
Weak autumn light spatters through the wide window’s frosted glass.
The piling sticky breakfast plates wait to replace their now clean counterparts in the dishwasher.
Dog-eared postcards adorn the fridge, fixed by novelty magnets from around the world.

 

2.  Pick up an object and in no more than 50 words describe it as accurately as you can.  Use simple language, say what it reminds you of, what it might resemble, how it smells and feels, etc.  Say where it originally came from, why it is in your possession and what it means to you emotionally.

Write fast, being as ‘factual’ and accurate as possible. Don’t worry about how your writing sounds, or about grammar at this stage.

Edward
My babyhood teddy bear, my dad’s first gift to his only child.  Aged 31 now, Edward’s yellowy fur is wearing away in patches, his black woollen nose is coming undone, but otherwise he has worn well.  He looks smart in his navy blue dungarees knitted by my mum.  He smells of fluff and age and love.  I adore the feel of his slightly scratchy fur against my face.

 

3.  In 100 words, say why you think a particular book works.  In another 100 words, say why you think another book does not.

I have chosen two books by the same author, as I recently read them consecutively and found their approaches very different.  For me, the first one succeeds where the second does not entirely.

The Defrosting of Charlotte Small – Annabel Giles
This works well for me, being written with depth, sensitivity, and a heavy dose of black humour which prevents it becoming too maudlin a piece.  The characters leap off the page – they are far from perfect people, but always real and engaging, never mere stock characters.  They are a manageable cast – I never lost track of who was who.

The style is slightly unusual, cutting between the protagonist Charlotte’s present life and episodes from her past which help explain her current behaviour.  The device is handled very well.  It is written in the first person, which suits the highly personal nature of Charlotte’s revelations.

Crossing the Paradise Line – Annabel Giles
This second Annabel Giles novel I read surprised me initially by being very different to the first – much more standard chicklit fare with considerably less depth.

Whilst fun and easy reading, I found a few drawbacks.  It is a touch overlong for me, with too many characters, of whom I found it hard to keep track.  Few of them truly engaged my sympathy, being selfish, shallow and at times stereotypical.

That said, I can’t claim I didn’t enjoy the book.  It just shows a novel can be highly readable even if doesn’t quite work as a piece of high literature.

 

4.  In 200 words, describe a character’s bedroom, office, garage, or other semi-private space, in a way that provides clues to character.

Carly’s housewarming present to her big brother Craig when he left home was a bedside table lamp.  Duck egg blue, with a corrugated cardboard frame, it was all her Saturday job wages would stretch to.

Craig had now been renting the second bedroom in his best friend Ollie’s maisonette for six months, yet was still to acquire a bedside table.  Carly’s Matalan lamp was poised on a mound of music, film and porn magazines, the cover of the top one always an Olympic flag of coffee mug rings.

Plates, stuccoed with leftover baked beans or brittle toast crusts, lurked behind curtains and on the carpet – though never on top of Craig’s top-notch TV and hi-fi, which he’d lapsed on last month’s rent to buy and which were the only objects in his room acquainted with dusters.

His only other furniture, besides his futon, was the pine wardrobe from his childhood bedroom, all but obscured under Blue-Tacked photographs of friends and relatives.  While inside the wardrobe hung his fluorescent work jacket, emblazoned ‘SECURITY,’ propped against it was the tool of Craig’s true vocation.  His well-thrummed guitar, a sixteenth birthday present, had seen him through numerous bands: student setups and more ambitious groups like his current one The Electric Geckos.

 

5.  In 250 words, describe a supermarket visited by a woman who has just received a promotion at work.

‘Love you too.  See you later.’  Chloe snapped her mobile shut and slid it into her handbag while one-handedly steering a trolley into Waitrose.

Waitrose all the way from now on, was what she had told her partner Adam on the phone.  He was thrilled about her promotion, of course.  She’d worked so conscientiously, and with Sarah the marketing officer’s imminent departure Chloe was to finally be elevated from mere assistant.

Still radiant from her call to Adam, she smiled indulgently at the pensioner who had left her trolley skew-whiff across the aisle while she faffed about by the root vegetable trays.

‘Here, let me,’ Chloe offered as the diminutive old lady stretched up for a reduced-price bag of parsnips.

‘Thank you dear.’  The lady beamed, and guiltily tugged her obstructive trolley out of Chloe’s path.

Around the next corner, Chloe’s sharpened senses were indulged with colour and scent: the delicatessen’s vivid spread of cheeses and pâtés, the sea bouquet of the fresh fish counter, the wafts of yeasty cosiness from the in-store bakery.

‘Sorry,’ cringed a mother as her hyperactive son ran into a bread display, dislodging a pile of baguettes on to Chloe’s foot.

‘No worries.’

When Chloe unloaded her copious purchases on to the checkout an hour later, she responded vivaciously to usually grating small talk the teenage assistant was obviously coached to make.  Finally she deposited a fiver in the stunned charity bag-packer’s bucket before dashing home to Adam.

 

Now, in another 250 words, write about the supermarket from the perspective of the same woman, who has just ended a love affair.

Chloe huffed as the old lady whose trolley was skew-whiff across the aisle faffed obliviously by the root vegetable trays.  Her current turmoil was heightening every trifling hindrance to crushing proportions.

Losing patience after roughly five seconds, Chloe wrenched her own trolley around into the adjacent aisle to try and reach the vegetables by alternative means.  Here a display of ready meals for one stared gloatingly at her.  She felt the ominous tickle of tears, and took several deep breaths to avoid a further mortifying fit like yesterday’s in Debenhams.

She selected two of the microwave meals, wincing at their prices.  No, Waitrose could certainly no longer be her supermarket of choice.  She had come today out of mere habit, but her now single income household wouldn’t stretch in future.

As Chloe sagged around the store, dodging the aisle-blockers like her old lady, the howling toddlers and the gossips who inched along nattering with their trolleys two abreast, she encountered a seeming profusion of couples.

Young, glowing people, some cutely carrying baskets between them, so gallingly intimate in their sharing of the weekly chore.  One pair even kissed as they levered a crate of Stella Artois off a shelf, as though somehow celebrating the purchase. 

The Stella was on offer.  It was Adam’s favourite lager.  Adam, who had left Chloe three days earlier, confessing to a longstanding affair with his secretary.

It was the smallest reminders that set Chloe off.  Her fragile composure crumpled, and another shop audience witnessed her downpour of sobs.

 

6.  In no more than a line, give the following story a plot:
‘Laura was standing by the window.’
In a further line, add some suspense to the same story.
Then, using no more than 50 words, add elements of intrigue, drama and tension.

Laura was standing by the window, waiting for Bobby’s car to pull on to the drive.

Laura was standing by the window, waiting for Bobby’s car to pull on to the drive.  He was late home for the third time this week.

Laura wrung her sob-soaked handkerchief between her fingers as she stood by the window, waiting for Bobby’s car to pull on to the drive.  He was late home for the third time this week.  Tonight she was going to confront him about this, and the incriminating text messages she’d discovered.

Cooking on gas

I feel as though today has been productive.

My books arrived today, from the bookbinders.  I have had my novels Classmates and Gap Year professionally bound (five copies of each), and have to say I am over the moon with the result.  OK, they aren’t quite published yet, but from a distance they look like real proper grown-up hardback books!  The work was not cheap, but was well worth every penny.

My coursework has gone well today too.  I temporarily abandoned the ‘write 500 words in the voice of a character’ task which was stumping me yesterday and moved on to the next one.  In fact I’ve completed two, much more inspiring activities today.

The first asked us to pick up a newspaper, choose one news item and write 50 words (which is not much at all really) as though from the point of view of someone involved in the story.

For the second exercise we are asked to keep an ongoing note of our concerns in life – hopes, fears and interests – which could potentially form themes for future stories.  I have noted down quite a lot so far, and it is proving very cathartic.

The idea of these varied tasks is to look at the different inspiration sources used by authors.  Sometimes a news story might act as a trigger (as the wedding of Britain’s oldest couple did for me, when I came up with A Civil Wedding last year); sometimes an object; sometimes word association; sometimes simply a line or image.  Each method will not suit every writer.  The maxim “what works for you, works” is very much a theme of this course.

Taking the pressure off myself about completing yesterday’s task also seems to have helped.  I think, without trying today, that I may have thought of a suitably unusual character to write about.

I’m thinking of uploading a few of my OU course bits to this site, in a section of their own to set them apart from my other short stories.  Watch this space.

I am currently buzzing with adrenalin, in a way I haven’t done for probably months.  I am beginning to think I was right: that enrolling on this course could prove to be one of the best things I have ever done.

Coming unstuck

I don’t feel I have progressed so swiftly with the coursework today.

I worked through three of the tasks – one of which was to critique the opening passages of Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz, which I really enjoyed – then came somewhat unstuck.  We have been asked to write 500 words in the voice of a character telling a story about either him/herself or another person.  The piece is supposed to be quite telling, making the narrator come to life through their language, thoughts and pattern of speech.

I spent a very long time brainstorming, listing a few of the many wacky characters I’ve met in my own life whom I might adapt (after changing names to protect the guilty, of course) into a fictional protagonist with a tale to tell.  Unfortunately the inspiration was not forthcoming.

I even took myself off for a lie down at one point (no sniggering please, I was on my own), hoping inspiration might magically strike me if I shut my eyes and concentrated.  I succeeded only in virtually nodding off, and had to drag myself up before a catnap rendered me unable to sleep tonight (I hate sleepless Sunday nights, which result in me feeling wrecked and grumpy all through Monday).

I have considered expanding one of the characters from my existing novels into a scene, but that strikes me as a tad lazy.  I’d feel like cheating.  I enrolled on this course with the aim of doing something new.

These are the sort of points at which my shaky confidence is and will continue to be tested.  I detest writer’s block.  This is the aspect of the course I was dreading.

I did start working through the course material a little early, though, so am not panicking yet.  I may have to postpone this activity, carry on through the remaining ones in the block and return to it later.  No point wasting time staring at a blank screen or twiddling my pen and scribbling crap in my journal.

In theory these activities given to us are not compulsory.  We are not marked on them – only the two tutor marked assignments count towards our final grade – but they are good practice.  There is, I suppose, little point signing up for the course if you don’t intend deriving as much benefit as possible from it by completing all the tasks.

Ah well.  I’ve logged off the OU website now, and turned my attentions to the altogether more straightforward task of preparing the Sunday roast.  I can cope with cooking.

Pop Art

In between OU assignments, I found time to pop out with my husband this morning to St Paul’s Gallery near Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, which houses the world’s largest exhibition of album cover artwork.

I would highly recommend the exhibition, especially for die-hard Queen or Pink Floyd devotees.

There is a large Queen section, featuring not only the album covers from News of the World and Jazz but also photographs – some previously unseen in public – from the Queen collection.  My hubby, Brian May’s biggest fan, was agog.

There are a large number of Pink Floyd’s often weird and wonderful album covers on display, designed by Storm Thorgerson.  Some of the stories behind these pieces of art are fascinating (Wiki them if you so desire), such as the lining up of 700 hospital beds (why??) on Saunton Sands in North Devon (I’ve been there!) for the sleeve of A Momentary Lapse of Reason.

The exhibition is free too!  I said to my husband we ought to take advantage of these free arts facilities on offer in our region, and get as much money’s worth as possible out of the council tax we pay to our useless jobsworth fat cat local authority!

Artwork from A Momentary Lapse of Reason by Pink Floyd


Artwork from News of the World by Queen


Brian May, aged 17, playing his legendary Red Special (with his cat Pixie).

Edward

I have spent most of today getting stuck into my OU coursework.  I can’t believe I started this work less than a week ago – I seem to have been immersed forever in the Start Writing Fiction course website, my journal and the online tutor group forums.

It sounds cheesy and X Factor-ish, but I definitely feel I am ‘going on a journey’ and this course is changing me as a person.  I already feel so much more confident, disciplined and organised by virtue of having a routine and goals to work towards.

This could well turn out to be one of the best things I have ever done…

One of the activities asked us, in 50 words (I went slightly over the limit), describe an object in our possession: what it looks, feels and smells like and means to us emotionally.

Much as I hate to label him as an ‘object’ (he’s real, you know!), my choice was my teddy bear, Edward!  Slightly silly, but I thought I’d share my observations:

Edward
My babyhood teddy bear, my dad’s first gift to his only child.  Aged 31 now, Edward’s yellowy fur is wearing away in patches, his black woollen nose is coming undone, but otherwise he has worn well.  He looks smart in his navy blue dungarees knitted by my mum.  He smells of fluff and age and love.  I adore the feel of his slightly scratchy fur against my face.

Please don’t throw up – he means a lot to me!  I’m sure more of you than would care to admit it still have your aged cuddly animals!

And for anyone desperate to know what Edward looks like, here he is:

So far so good…

Just a quick update to say I am enjoying the OU so far.  In fact I’m finding I can’t wait to get back into the work, which is a good sign.

Mind you, I am only two days in so there is still time for me to grow disillusioned…

I’ve started!!

I actually decided I might as well knuckle down and start the coursework tonight.

The course does not officially kick off until Saturday, but I know from reading the forums that some folks have begun work on their activities already and I guess there is no harm in getting a little head start.  I’m sure there will be elements to the work that are going to require more of my time, just as there may be others that I sail through.  I feel I have done all the background reading and groundwork I need – I may as well just hold my nose and plunge in.

I completed my first activity tonight, for which we were asked to introduce ourselves to our respective tutors, setting out in 50-100 words who we are and what we hope to achieve from the course.

My study environment is the kitchen table, from which we cleared our steak and Guinness pie and accompanying sauce bottles (winter comfort food) but one hour ago.  This room is light, warm and distraction-free.  I have my bottle of water and plethora of pens to hand.  So far I am feeling motivated, but then it is only day one.

OU chat

Tonight I have been chatting with some of my fellow students in the OU forum.  I can see myself getting quite addicted to it.

It really is true that it’s a comfort making contact with others in the same boat.  Studying alone at home can be an isolating experience; the idea of online conferencing is to take the ‘distance’ out of distance learning.

It was my first visit to the forum tonight, and I was rather overwhelmed wading through the volume of posts on there.  When you sign up for something like this, you kind of think it’s just you and it’s almost a surprise to see all these other names.

Sometimes forums can be cliquey, but everyone I’ve conversed with on the OU one thus far has been friendly.  People have the same worries and questions; there is no need to fear ‘sounding thick.’  I feel that just spending an hour online conferencing has broken the ice.

It’s also a comfort, daft as it sounds, knowing that other course members have other things going on in their lives.  There are folks with families, demanding jobs and other commitments that they have to juggle alongside studies.  That’s the beauty of the OU.  Nobody expects us to be full-time scholars.  If everybody else can do it, so can I.  I have no excuse not to do well.

Tomorrow we’ll find out to which tutor groups we have been allocated, and be divided off into tutor group forums for discussion about specific parts of the course.  The tutor groups consist of only about 20 people, so at least it should be easier keeping track of posts on those forums than on the general course one which has about 800 members!

I’m nervous, I have a lot to get through in the next 12 weeks, yet another part of me is loving this course already.  It’s a great thrill knowing I’m doing something for me.  Anything I gain from it will be mine, and nobody can take it away.

Ooh, I could write so much here!  I just hope I’m as prolific with the activities on the course.

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