Friday, 26 February 2016

Review of Dianne’s story in the OU course on Fiction Writing:

Bad Memories

What were the strengths and weaknesses of the character portrayals?

Dianne, you have portrayed only two characters, a wise choice in view of the space available. They could so easily have been similar in outlook and temperament and therefore less interesting, because they were (two of) triplets. The difference is brought out through their recent history of injury, long-term rehabilitation and amnesia for the one, against caring, compassion and revenge for the other.
     You use dialogue and action to portray character – as I tend to do. If that’s done well, as it is here, the reader’s imagination adds the physical stuff, with whatever snippets of physical description you only put in if they’re needed.

Were there any very clear, or any confusing, elements of the story which related to approaches taught on Start Writing Fiction?

The timescale confused me a little in the short para starting ‘She booked . . .’
May I suggest a way to clarify that?  If you transpose and slightly change the two sentences to say:
‘You were stationed here when it happened. Laurie and I flew out to surprise you for our twenty-fifth birthday.’
The booking wasn’t important. That they flew out together was.
     Another confusion was “Dave smiled . . ran a hand over his belly. He looked .“
     Danny’s confusion of mind was well done. But you avoided confusing the reader even when you described his action and his thoughts in the same line:
Danny looked towards the door. Who’s Danny. Am I Danny?

Did the story have a plot, causality and conflict? How did it engage you?

I liked the dramatic start and the questions it posed. It struck a chord with me – straight into the action. If there’s any scene-setting to be done, it can happen later - and to the minimum as far as I’m concerned.
     Even in a short story like this, you managed to summarise a completely satisfying plot: conflict, accident, death, grief, revenge, escape. You also used the flashback technique well. It suited the story – and Danny’s state of mind.
     There was clear cause and effect. Nothing happened that wasn’t connected to or caused by something that happened before.
     Strong conflict too. It couldn’t really be much stronger, could it, when it results in two deaths? Though it might not be described as conflict by most readers, the struggle that Dave goes through to help his brother would have involved an internal conflict and it’s also explicit in a way as he tries to stop Danny hurting himself physically and torturing himself mentally.
     It engaged me very strongly. In many ways.
     I’ve already told you I was in the army, in Cyprus. It was at a time when Greek Cypriot terrorists (or freedom fighters) were involved in a struggle to end British rule and seek union with Greece. There were many deaths, not all of them according to the rules of war.
     Apart from personal feelings, the telling of the story was dramatic, cleverly condensed to fit into the word-count and I got wrapped up in it to such good effect that I didn’t stop to notice the little mistakes here and there.

So now we come to the “petty niggles” I promised you. They are the sort of thing that would put a publisher off, or even a picky reader like me.
     A lot of grammatical errors, probably caused by changing minor things to fit the word-count, then forgetting to check them. I won’t list them all, but look at “her bright blue eyes were twinkling with her popped into his head” and “will never be seen again here again”.
     Research: only artillerymen refer to “guns”; that’s the seriously big stuff, with wheels. Soldiers generally call a smaller weapon a pistol or a rifle or maybe by the manufacturer’ name. I had a Browning 9mm automatic pistol or a Webley .38 revolver at different times. You could always find someone to ask who had been in the Forces at the time you were writing about.
     A few more. Brace yourself! I know these well; I’ve been told so often myself.  “Soft fluffy white”. Three adjectives in a row are at least one too many.
     No man will admit to having “locks”. And” burst into floods of tears” is a cliché. Of course, you knew that.
     I’ll agree that getting hold of and later “losing” a handgun can be done, though it’s not easy. You didn’t have the space to explain how. Frederick Forsyth would have given it three or four pages. It would be more difficult to get to and return from abroad as if you’d never been there, but what the hell!

    What matters,  Dianne, is that it’s a good story well told.
Another submission to my OU course in Fiction Writing

The Axe

When he opened the door, he had on a scruffy dressing gown, slippers and a tweed cap. A short-handled axe hung loosely in his right hand.
     I took a step back. You can’t tell with Daft Robbie. Sergeant Westland smiled.
     ‘Mister Roberts? Good morning, sir. First, could you please put down the axe?’
     Old Robbie looked down and seemed surprised to see the axe.
     ‘Oh, yes. I’m so sorry. Silly of me.’ A little nervous laugh. ‘Opening the door to a policeman while I’m holding a weapon. You must have thought, I don’t know, maybe that I might be dangerous.’
     ‘It’s still in your hand, sir.’ The sergeant wasn’t hurrying, hadn’t raised his voice. But I knew he was on his toes. I’d seen him in action. You wouldn’t think someone his age could move so quick. He’d put more villains on the floor than I’d had canteen dinners.
     Hand on the baton. Strike for the elbow if that axe lifts.
     Robbie’s fingers opened and the axe dropped, clanged on the worn brick floor of the porch. It toppled against a pair of battered old boots and knocked a piece of dried mud off the sole.
     ‘May we come in, sir? We can be more comfortable inside.’
     ‘Of course. I’m forgetting my manners. Please come in .’
     The axe lay where he had left it. I had a quick look as he led us in; no sign of blood. Three sleeping cats occupied one of  the mismatched armchairs in the cramped room and a collie on the old leather sofa looked up. Its tail gave a token wag. The dog must have been out recently; its coat was still wet. I notice these things. Part of the training, see. The room smelled like a team of handlers had been sleeping in the dog-van all week.
     ‘Shift up, Bess,’ the old man said and the collie eased itself to the far end.
     ‘Please sit down, gentlemen. What can I do for you?’
     Sergeant Westland gave him our names.
     ‘Oh, but I remember you, don’t I, young Jacko? Used to chase you off  my blackcurrant bushes, didn’t I?’
     ‘It’s PC Jackson now, sir.’ I said. I could feel my neck getting hot. The sergeant’s lip twitched slightly. If it had been anyone else, the story of Jacko’s blush would have been all round the station tonight.
     ‘Are you just out of bed, sir?’
     ‘I beg your pardon, Sergeant? Oh, the dressing-gown. I’d forgotten.’ That little laugh again. ‘I don’t have anyone to get dressed for any more, you see. I don’t get many visitors, either.’ He took off the tattered  cap. Thin wisps of white hair fell round his ears.
     ‘You said “a weapon”, sir. But it’s a wood-axe, isn’t it?’ Sergeant was a crafty sod, slipping in the quick question trying to catch the old man out.
     ‘Yes, but, you know, you might think that I was going to use it as, you know, as a weapon.’ He hesitated. We said nothing, just watched him. I’d learned that much.
     The sergeant changed tack again. ‘You were saying you don’t see many people here, Mr Roberts. Did you see anyone last night. Any strangers? Anyone at all?’
     ‘No, Sergeant. You’re the first I’ve seen this week. I haven’t even been to the shop yet.’
     ‘Are you sure, Mr Roberts? I should tell you we’ve spoken to Mrs Emslie at the village shop.’
     Daft Robbie had his usual stupid smile on. ‘Have you? That’s nice. She’s very helpful, isn’t she?’
     ‘Let me tell you, sir,’ said the sergeant, ‘what she told us. She said you were there on Tuesday.’
     ‘Yes, that’s right, sergeant. Last Tuesday. Tuesday’s my day for the shop.’ He looked round at the cluttered mantelpiece. ‘Where’s my list, I wonder?’    
                 ‘What day is it today, sir?’
                  ‘It’s Tuesday, isn’t it? My shopping day.’
                  Sergeant Westland was very patient. ‘No, sir, it’s Thursday. You were in the shop two
            days ago, Mrs Emslie said.’
                 ‘Was I? Goodness me! Well, that must be right, then. She would know.’
                 ‘Was anyone else in the shop then, sir?’
                 ‘I’m trying to remember, sergeant.’ You could see he was struggling. ‘Oh, yes, some
            woman, talking to, I think, yes, it was Doctor Jamieson.’ His face lit up like he’d just won the
                 ‘Did you speak to the woman, sir? Did you see her again?’
                 ‘No, no,’ Robbie said, ‘I just speak to Mrs Emslie. Just . .  people I’m used to.’
                  The sergeant spoke very slowly and deliberately. ‘Mr Roberts, have you been out of this
            house since that day?’ We watched his face.
                 ‘Er, no – not even into the garden.’ He seemed puzzled.
                  The sergeant stood up. ‘Thank you, Mr Roberts. That’s all we need to know. We have to
            ask everyone, you know.’
                  As we left, I whispered to the sergeant, ‘Do you want me to take the axe?’
                 ‘What for?’ He carried on walking.
                 ‘You know – forensics. Any trace of her blood?’
                 ‘Don’t be daft, son. He couldn’t have done that.’
                 ‘But why not, sarge? He may look harmless, but he chased me with a pitchfork once. I
            nearly shit myself, I was so scared.’
                  The sergeant stopped and turned to me. ‘How old were you then? Eight? Ten? Kids  
            scare very easily, especially when they know they’ve done wrong. Nicking his blackcurrants,
            were you, young Jacko?’
                 ‘Yeh, alright, Sarge. Don’t go on. But just because he says he wasn’t out . . ?’
                 ‘Listen, that woman was attacked about four hours ago. It was raining heavily then,
            still drizzling now. Those boots in the porch were bone dry.’
                 ‘He could have another pair.’
                 Sgt Westland sighed. ‘You know and I know that poor old daft Robbie never has more
            than one pair of boots. He wears ‘em till they drop off. They’re probably the same ones he
            used to chase you in when you were a nipper.
                 ‘Come on, let’s get back. I need a cuppa.’                                                           (997 words)

Sunday, 7 February 2016

I shall awaken this blog from its long sleep to post an entry for the online course I'm doing with FutureLearn (run by the Open University).
The course is called "Start Writing Fiction". This piece is the beginning of a longer story. We are encouraged to concentrate on the story's characters, make them strong and interesting and have them drive the story.
The trigger for this was a few photographs of my grand and great grandparents taken towards the end of the 19th century.

On the shelf

Margaret looked up from the large bag of T-shirts and sweaters as Kayleigh hurried into the shop.
     ‘Oh, you’re early, dear.’
     ‘Well, you see, Margaret, I was going to ask . .’
     Margaret was still half-buried in the bin-bag.
     ‘Do you remember,’ her muffled voice said, ‘ that couple who bought those Victorian photos?  Well, they picked out some and re-donated the rest. Wasn’t that nice?’
     ‘Yes, but, Margaret, remember I said I was going out with the girls tonight. Do you mind if I go off early?’
     ‘That’s alright, just go when you’re ready. But you watch your drinking, m’lady. You know what that crowd are like.’
     Kayleigh laughed. ‘You’re worse than my mum. I bet when you were young, you were in a photo just like this. Look at it, the one you called “The Sad Little Chambermaid” – that’s you.’
     ‘I’m not that old, you cheeky thing. It was my granny who was in service. She used to tell me what a hard life it was. Things were so different then.’

‘I’ll be off now then, Margaret.’
     ‘Right, dear. I’ll see you in the morning. Oh, no, I still haven’t put those photographs on the top shelf. Would you mind, Kayleigh? You're taller than me. Yes, just as they are. We’ll make a proper display of them tomorrow.’
     Fifteen minutes later, Margaret locked the charity shop door, switched the lights off and turned the card to “Closed”. She went into the back shop. Time for a sit-down and a cup of tea before she left. There was no one now to hurry home for.
     The back shop was getting dark but it was still warm. Margaret closed her eyes.

She didn’t hear the whispers in the darkness.

‘Annie? It is you. My Annie. I knew you were there somewhere. ’
     ‘Mr James? Is that you? Where are you?’
     ‘Over here, my darling. In the big family portrait. Just behind Mama.’
     ‘Yes, I see you now. Behind  your Mama. Of course.’

     ‘Dear Annie, you’re not still blaming me? You knew we couldn’t go on as before. Not after Mama found . . . ‘     
     ‘After your Mama found us together in the summerhouse? We were just talking - but we were together. That mustn’t happen in the Cornwallis family.’
     ‘Annie, I did love you. Please believe me.’
     ‘Maybe you did, James. But not enough.’
     ‘Did you? . . . how was it? . . after?’
     ‘After I was sacked? What do you think? I had no references. I took whatever work I could get. I will not tell you what I had to do to get enough to live on. Then I opened a market stall in Petticoat Lane, selling secondhand clothes. Eventually I opened a proper dress shop. Before I retired I had three. 
     'No, James, I never married. You know, you could say you did me a favour. Do you remember the blue dress your mother wore that Christmas of 1902? I took a great delight in selling that to her. I still remember how it felt to put her money in my till. She didn’t recognize me.’

Margaret woke with a start. She had to stand on a chair to replace the family portrait, which seemed to have fallen. How strange, she thought; the “Little Chambermaid” somehow didn’t look as sad as she remembered.

(560 wds)