Sunday, February 22, 2015

Start as you mean to go on

Yesterday, Lee and I attended the Perth Writers Festival. Lee went because he wanted to reignite his passion for writing. I went because I wanted to buy books. We both got what we wanted, plus we got what the other wanted. Laden down with new purchases (thank goodness for the credit card!) we both came home with a renewed sense of purpose.

This morning, after a walk and a discussion about the Australian writing-voice, we came home and set up our computers at the dining table. Then we picked an exercise and set about writing some new words. I chose "Last Line" where you pick up a work, write out its last line and then pick up your story from there.

It's best if you haven't actually read the work before, because it means your mind isn't muddied by the author's words. Lee picked the Locus Awards collection off the shelf and I chose story number 4 -"The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley, a story we likely have read, but not in many, many years.

Lee read out the last line: "We sit in the lovely quiet and dark."

And from there we went.

15 mintues and 390 words later, this was the scene I'd written:

We live in the lovely quiet and dark.  This morning when we were five, before Trotter’s ravings turned to screams and we had to turn him outside for the sun to eat, we felt our refuge to be temporary, a short-won thing. Now we had an extra set of rations, an extra set of blankets, an extra few days to make things right.
Four is easier to deal with than five. Three would be easier still. That, however, would mean losing one of my own and I'm not read for that. Not yet.
“I’m cold.” Jay, my youngest son, has broken the silence. The air once thick with tension, eases a little. I put my arms around his shoulders and pull him into my side.
“We’re all cold,” I tell him. “But it could be worse. We could be outside.”
“It’s time,” Argo says. As the oldest child, I have given him the job of counting to 3600. At the end of each count I take a chance and light up the thin console. The main power went shut down days ago, but the back-up generator allows me to shed a little light on the display panel every now and then. The radar flares. I count to ten, sweep my gaze across its dull green surface and yelp. Then I shut it down again.
“They’re coming. Help is coming.” Tyler is standing by my side. He’s seen what I've seen, noted what I’ve noted.
Help is nothing more than a faint blip on the top left corner, but it’s now visible. We can count our rescue in days rather than weeks. We’re saved.
Jay snuggles closer. “Does this mean we can eat now?”
I want to say “yes” and “of course”, but I’ve been in the service too long to take such things for granted. Half of basic training was devoted to holding out a glimmer of hope just to see what the nuggets would do. 75% of them ate their rations, drank their water, jumped up and down to make themselves seen. That 75% went home to their lives as shop-keepers, garbage collectors, milk men.
“No,” I say instead. “Remember your training.”

Outside the searing winds picked up, shaking the ship like a naughty child. My sons settled around me and once more we began to wait. 

Interestingly, we'd both written about a small family group, waiting for something to happen. In my case I wrote from the POV of a protective parent. In Lee's, he wrote of the child waiting for the mother to act. 

As exercises go, it was a good one. It got the creative juices flowing and now I feel ready to continue with my writing day.

Friday, February 06, 2015

An exercise in random thoughts

This week's exercise was rather random in tone. Quite simply, I sat down, rested my fingers on the keys and allowed my fingers ride the subconscious-train to freedom.

"We built the snowman in mid-January."

Okay, it became immediately apparent that my subconscious was not in Australia, or, indeed, in any other part of the southern hemisphere. January, for me, is about drinking beer while testing the strength of the air-con. It's most certainly not about snowmen.

Aware of this, I nonetheless kept my mouth shut and let my fingers get on with it.

"We built the snowman in mid-January, at a point when the very best of our Christmas presents had grown dull and the worst lay broken at the bottom of the wheelie bin." 

Aha, hmm hmm, yep. Do they even have wheelie bins in the US or UK or Canada or wherever the heck the scene was taking place? I mean, I know they have wheelie bins, but is that what they're actually called?

Shut up. You can edit it later, I snapped at my all-too-critical brain. When it comes to writing, you've let me down lately, so how about you let someone else have a go?

My brain, not used to being addressed in such a manner, crossed its arms and pouted, but I noticed it didn't move away either.

And so, slowly at first, but then with some speed, the story came out.  I began to notice little things, such as the US setting and the unusual Point of View (first person, plural). Even as I grew used to thinking as an American 'we', I kept to Australian spelling. This, I told myself, was something that should be addressed in the editing process.

I'm never going to send it out, because it really was an exercise, but, as flawed as it is, "The Snowman" acts as a reminder that when it comes to writing I need to stop editing as I go and just let the story find its own path. This is what I wrote, unedited, unproofed.

The Snowman

We built the snowman in mid-January, at a point when the very best of our Christmas presents had grown dull and the worst lay broken at the bottom of the wheelie bin. The snow came slowly at first, as if deciding whether this was a neighbourhood worth moving into, but eventually it took the plunge and settled all over yards and trees and cars.
It’s still not exactly certain who started the snowman, but it is suspected that the Beaumont children, with their untamed hair and wild eyes, were the first to roll the ball that would become the first layer.  
What is certain is that the Templemans, those three children of grace and charity, were away down south, helping to rebuild after the destruction of Hurricane Lucille. And yet, despite their absence, or maybe because of it, the snowman became known as the Templeman snowman, for it was upon their driveway that the beast saw construction.
Manuel Rodriguez arrived just as the bottom layer was being rolled into place. It was his father that pushed his wheel chair close, his mother who wrapped the blanket firmly around his legs. We welcomed him with a hearty “Manny” and they left us to our build.
“Can I help?” Manny asked and we pushed a mound of snow into his gloved hands. Manny’s gloves, made from a mixture of leather and lamb’s wool, left a texture upon the compacted snow, a texture that made the rising sun dapple and dance around the fractured lanes.
Someone suggested we invite Corey Meyer to play, so construction stopped while he was fetched. He must have been waiting for our invitation, for he appeared only minutes later, decked out in his full winter gear and carrying three large pebbles from his sister’s terrarium. We told him we hadn’t got that far, so he placed it in Manny’s lap for safe keeping.

The Carson twins, aged 8 and a half, were late to the show and, to be honest, we thought it unlikely they’d join us at all. Their parents, an Australian couple who seemed dazed by American attitudes, had spent the past year of residence surveying the street from behind the safety of their net curtains. However, join us they did. Damien Carson arrived with a tie looped loosely around his thin neck, while Sarah Carson displayed rusted tin-and-glass earrings.
They also bought with them the first handfuls of snow that would make up the middle of the snowman. Sarah dropped hers as she walked, but she scooped it back up, bringing a top layer of dark soil with it. Gently, we had to explain that a snowman couldn’t contain sand, that it was bad luck, so she dumped it where she stood (which is just bad form) then fetched another.
Despite this rocky interlude, the snowman’s tummy and chest took shape and the Australians learnt our ways.
The tolling of the church bells reminded us of the O’Reilly family. Sure enough, their car pulled up in the street just as we brought together the first handfuls of head snow. Eight kids rolled out of the mini-van, three of them peeled off and headed towards us. The O’Reillys were an original family and really we should have waited until they were home, but despite the rumours of their New York mafia connections, they didn’t seem too upset about the slight. Instead, Seamus O’Reilly, oldest child of the street, removed his trademark trilby and placed it upon Manny’s head.
Throughout the morning we came and went. Sometimes we were three, at others ten, but always we worked; building, decorating, changing, adapting. Together we built up our snowman, together we created him from snow, sweat and the bits and pieces of our families’ lives.
And then, it was time.
The snowman was complete. We needed to decorate.
Stones in hand, Corey placed one on the lower layer where the belly button would be, and two in the middle layer for buttons.  
Damien unknotted the tie, then wrapped it around the snowman’s neck. Sarah, scratching at the red of her ears, hooked the earrings into a small groove on the sides of the man’s head.
As probable masterminds of the scheme, the Beaumonts grinned as they sculpted a wide smile from roasted coffee beans and stuck a real pipe into its centre. Most people would have brought a carrot for the nose, but not the Beaumonts. They had stolen a red light from their tree and it was this that did the honours in giving form to the face. For a while we debated eyes, but in the end Sarah removed the tin-and-glass earrings from our creation’s head and placed them in the side space above the light.
And then, the crowning glory.
Manny removed the trilby from his own head and handed it to over. We weren’t sure who should do the honours, so we decided to do it together. With forefinger and thumb we reached up and over until, as one, we finished our creature. For a brief, shining moment, the Templeman snowman pulsed with life.
Our parents, keeping one eye on our progress and one on their own, private, lives, stepped out into the weak sunshine and congratulated us on our efforts.
Manny was the first to leave, his Dad grabbing the handles of his chair and pushing him up the drive and into their house.
Following his cue, we peeled off one by one and trudged home.
The sun crested the top of the sky, before heading towards the west. The wind blew and changed direction, the air warmed.

And, out there all alone, our snowman died.