Wednesday, 29 January 2014

A Backwards Story

As mentioned yesterday, here is the next exercise in the series I am slowly but surely getting through. This one goes back to the First World War, featuring a character mentioned in this piece, and as per the brief, told backwards. Writing a story in reverse was certainly interesting, but I think it works rather well in this case, and is something I may well experiment more with in future.

Here goes:
Back to Life (A Backwards Story)

Robson is dying, he knows that. In the mud and the blood and the fire of the field so far from home. Killed in someone else’s war. He gropes at cavity where the bullet has punched through his chest; he’s no doctor, there is no chance of survival; the wound is ragged and torn, blood already running dry. Breathing was impossible, even without the thick gunsmoke. He had run across that muddy, ravaged field and it had hit him, and he had fallen and he had stayed down. His last thought as he lay there, dying in the foreign mud, is how it had come to this…

He bursts from the trench, not yet daring to run, rifle in hand and cold. There is no clarity to the cacophonous sound and his vision is a blur, wave after wave of inexplicable sensations bombarding him, one after another after another. From somewhere there comes a rat-tat-tat-tat-tat that is followed immediately by blood-curdling screams, from somewhere else there is an explosion of blinding light that assaults his eyes. And then there is pain, that burning, searing pain as his chest is torn apart…

Another battlefield, and he was sitting in a different trench, German this time, smoking the last of the cigarettes he’d picked up on leave. His face was dirty but not bloody, and his rifle rested casually against the parapet. In his free hand was that faded photograph, a girl he could scarcely remember. She was just a name and a face now, but he still held on to that. A last token of home. What was home now? One day, when the war was over, he would find her again. He would find himself, too. When the war was over…

Robson steps down into the trench, making sure to tread on the duckboards that are themselves sinking. Making his way along the muddy ravine, the world comes apart, and everything he knows is wrong. This mud and squalor is not at all what he had been told to expect, nor are the constant sounds of distant guns and the screams from somewhere too far away to matter. But had he expected the cheerful smiles that greet him from every face, even if just to hide the pain and pity. There is something not right about those smiles, but it doesn’t matter. Maybe here, he’ll be one of them at last…

His first view of France is a grey line on the horizon, unremarkable and plain. Closer, he sees a green tinge to the coast, and makes out hills and trees and a place where a river meets the sea. Closer still, his first real glimpse of what they will be fighting for. A small postcard village, picturesque fields that roll over hills and down into the morning haze, the smiling faces as they come ashore. A hundred other men see what he sees, and he is certain every one of them is feeling the same thing; this isn’t too bad.

As fields roll by past the windows of the train, England slowly leaving him behind, a swarm of bees buzz through his head. He is leaving those he never loved, but also one he did. One who a man, dressed in khaki, like him, youthful and free, like him, took away. If she could see him now, what would she say? It doesn’t matter. He unfolds the photograph from so long ago, that moment frozen in time, and for a moment, forgets. Maybe, at long last, he has made her proud.
Robson takes one last look back at the three of them as he steps on the train. The father who was not his Father, beaming and saluting, Jeanette’s face glowing with admiration for her very own soldier that never loved her, and Mother, crying and making no effort to hide it. He wishes she would stop; it’s spoiling the moment, some last pang of loneliness holding on with those tears. At the very least, she could pretend to be a little proud.
‘Come back to us.” He hears her call as the train moved off. I will, he promises himself. I will, he lies.

“Name?” says the officer, and Robson stammers something unintelligible, trying not to wither under his stare. “Name?”
“Robson. Ian Robson.” He says again, clearer this time, and the officer nods. Robson wrings his hands as the next question comes, the one that will decide his future. 
“Eighteen.” He says.
“Very good.” The officer frowns, but hands him the papers. What is that in his face? Anger at being lied to? Jealousy that Robson has the courage to fight while he sits here doling out forms? No, it’s pity, but he doesn’t know why. He had lied, and the officer knows it, but what did it matter now? Robson was going to war…


I hope you found the piece interesting and thought-provoking, or at least vaguely engaging. As always, any comments or criticism are welcome, and once more, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Last Call

I've got a couple more stories done today, the Phone Tag and Backwards exercises are both done now, and both were very nice to write given how much trouble I'm still having with 'The Reluctant I'. The backwards one I have a few reservations about, but more on that later. For now, here's the Phone Tag exercise. Just a couple of quick notes beforehand: pay attention to the date at the start, it's important, and be prepared for quite a dark and tragic piece.

Last Call (Phone Tag exercise)

Norfolk, England, August 1940

Stanley waited patiently by the phone, just as he always had, while Ella (he should really call her Miss Stapleton, but she never minded) made the call. As she spun the dial and asked to be put through, he sat in silence, sipping his hot chocolate and trying not to wince at the heat. He was nearly seven, after all, and it wouldn’t do for him to be upset by it. Not in front of Ella, anyway. She was a Grown Up, and never upset.

The call seemed to take longer than usual, and when the phone finally seemed to connect, Ella did not immediately hand it over like she usually did. Instead, she seemed to stiffen, and when she spoke, her voice that Stanley had come to know meant safety and strength suddenly seemed to say ‘help me’.

 “’Hello? Hello?” she began, and Stanley leant forward to try and hear. He knew he shouldn’t, and that mother would think it awfully rude, but something wasn’t right. There was no ‘Hello, Mrs Wallace, can I pass you to Stan?’ or even the bright and lilted ‘How are you, Mrs Wallace? Good, good, I’ll pass you over now.’ that he sometimes heard if she was in a particularly good mood that day.

“Hello?” she said again, and then “Oh.”  A long silence followed, in which Stanley could do nothing but wait, perched on the edge of the step.

“No, no, he’s here. But I’ll hear it first, please.” Stanley noticed that she was doing the cross voice that he only got when he was naughty.

“Right…. Right… Oh crikey… Oh God.” Ella paused for a moment more, swallowed, and seemed to calm herself.

‘Close your eyes and count to ten.’ Stanley wanted to tell her, just like she taught him, but he said nothing. It would be rude to interrupt, especially a Grown Up. Still, she managed to regain composure as he knew she would, and started speaking again, her voice even more ragged now than before, a tapestry fraying at the edges.

“Ok… Ok, I’ll tell… Oh God no. How did it…?”

Stanley began chewing his lip and tapping his fingers in patterns of four beats on the bannister, counting each and trying to understand. Why wasn’t he allowed to speak to Mother? Or even Father? At the very least he would like to have said goodnight to them. Confused, he went back to listening to the call, fighting to understand. Like in the stories, Sherlock Holmes solving a mystery. Those stories always had a happy ending, didn’t they? Especially when Ella told them.

“Right. Right. Both of them?” Another age-long pause.  “Ok. So what will you do about… what will you do about him?”

Stanley noticed the pointed look his way that Ella must have thought he hadn’t. His mind was flying now, running through idea after idea. Maybe they were coming to visit, and they were already on the way? Maybe they had gone on holiday away from the city? But why hadn’t they told him?

“Right. Of course I will. Of course I will.” Ella put the phone down and stepped back as if it were a live snake, or a dead rat, or a monster from under the bed she always promised weren’t there. “I’ll tell him.” She said hysterically, voice high like it went when she was singing, but not as happy. That voice made the world better, this one seemed to tear it apart. “I’ll tell him… I’ll tell him.” She stared into the distance at something Stanley couldn’t see, but because he tried anyway, he didn’t see the tears flooding her eyes.

After Time (he didn’t quite know how much), he finally spoke up.

“Can I speak to Mother and Father now, please? Are they going to phone back?”

Ella appeared to evaporate before his eyes. She still stood there, not moving, but all the life and soul had left her like a sparrow flying south to warmer climes. She looked down at him, but not into his eyes, and finally, finally told him.

“They aren’t going to call back…” She sobbed, sinking to her knees and clutching desperately at Stanley. “Oh God, Stanley, they’re never going to call back.”

Author's notes:

- First off, a note on the tone of this piece. It really is upsetting and tragic, but again I hope I've handled it well. This is probably one of the saddest and most unpleasant pieces I've written, but at the same time, I think it is in a way quite touching and relevant. The story touches on a lot of themes that I do like, such as the innocence of childhood, the bond between parents and children and the way this is affected by various circumstances.

- This piece is also unusual for me in that the setting is not only a new area in terms of my writing, but also massively informing of the piece, without being explicitly explained. The first person that read this missed the date at the start, and the piece took on an entirely different meaning. So that's something I've not really done before, and I'm interested to hear whether it works or whether the story as a whole is too vague.

- I hope that the perspective on the story works well enough. I think I've managed to capture the mind of a 1940s child well enough, but I'm of course open to criticism.

I'll post the next one later today, and for now, any comments are welcome as per usual.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Body Language

So, I've thrown in the towel (temporarily at least) on the 'Reluctatnt I' task, as I've found it impossible to sustain a character or setting given the limited nature of the brief. To avoid getting bogged down, I've moved onto the next task, focusing on body language as a means of communication. Here's the story:

Countdown (an exercise in Body Language)

The Somme, France, 1st July 1916

Corporal Smith watched as each of the men in turn got the news, the word of impending slaughter winding its way inexorably down the trench in a wave of panic. Men reached for rifles before putting them aside, and fishing in their pockets for trinkets and memories of home. Some curled into balls or sunk into silent prayer, and a few, just a few, just stood, resolute and unthinking, by the firing step, rifles in hand and faces vacant.

He made out Johnson and Robson among the mess of khaki and mud and dim light, and each of them gave a wordless nod, not meeting his eyes. Johnson nervously tapped a rhythm on the butt of his rifle, while Robson just went back to staring at that old faded photograph he had carried for so long. Smith knew that if he could see into Robson’s eyes, there would only be tears for youth wasted and love lost.

He checked his watch, that old watch handed from friend to friend that charted the course of this never-ending war. Marne, Ypres, and now the Somme. This watch had seen more than he had. As much an old soldier as any one of them, and now, counting down the seconds until…

Five minutes.                                                                                                                                                                      
The hand seemed to move slower with each tick, counting the moments that took longer and longer. He felt a presence behind him, and turned slowly, still not pocketing the old watch, fingers sliding round and round the glass face in ever-decreasing circles.

He brought his eyes up to the sergeant, who made no sound, just proffered a hand which Smith shook, and moved on down the line. Wherever he went, men stood and salute; parade-ground manner marching its way into the battlefield. Smith rolled his eyes and looked back down at the watch.

Four minutes. Time passed, but so slowly, and he turned his gaze back to the waiting men, knowing it was becoming blanker by the second. He tried to force a smile, but it didn’t go far before it developed into a tick at the corner of his mouth, a grim contortion of a smirk. A ghost of a smile, waiting to die.

Silently his batman, Anders, approached and handed him his pistol. Out of nothing more than instinct, Smith checked each loaded round, tapping each in turn and then snapping the gun back up. The snap broke through the otherwise-silent morning like a gunshot, and every eye turned to him, suddenly alert. Then, one at a time, they went back to what they had been distracted from, and after a few seconds, there might well have been no sound at all. 

Anders looked up expectantly, needing to know his job was a satisfactory one. Smith nodded, almost imperceptibly, but it was enough. Anders had done all that he could. As he turned to leave, Smith placed a hand on his shoulder and the batman turned, puzzled. Without a word, Smith unclipped the watch from his uniform, folded the chain, and pressed the now-cold metal into Anders’ hand. Anders looked back at him, understanding enough to know what this meant, and said nothing, did nothing. Then, wordless, he gave one last salute and crawled back into the dugout, a rabbit hiding from an oncoming storm.

With no watch to check, Smith began counting the seconds, one by one.

One hundred and nine. One Hundred and eight.
The beat Johnson was tapping increased in pace, building to a rapid-fire staccato, a hail of impacts in the early morning air.

Sixty. Fifty nine. Fifty Eight.

Robson lifted the photograph to his clean-shaven face, kissed it once, and folded it back into his pocket. He wiped tears when he thought no one was looking.

Thirty six. Thirty five. Thirty four. Thirty three.

The sergeant, a statue of discipline and correctness, suddenly seemed to wilt, his shoulders sagging and lip beginning to tremble. His fingers clawed at his holster like a rat, trapped in a cage.

Twenty four. Twenty three. Twenty two. Twenty one. Twenty.

Smith waved his pistol forward and the army moved as one, each placing a single foot on the firing step. There was a brief jostle around the ladders, men shoving one another aside to get to the spot they thought would save them.

Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. 

Author's notes: 
I tend to avoid doing historical pieces, preferring to go for imagined or just generic settings (my first two exercises demonstrate this, the first could be anywhere and anywhen, and the second is a clearly defined but fictional setting). However, WW1 is something of a comfort zone for my writing, as I have done a lot of research and work on it both historically and in literature, so feel I know it well enough to do it justice as a setting. It's also well-known enough that it doesn't require extensive work on establishing a setting. 

I may have gone slightly off the brief in that it's not so much a conversation as a scene, but I still think I've managed to convey a sense of character through body language, which was the point of the exercise, after all. Similarly, I've gone 150 words over the suggested limit, but I figure it's no problem in the long run. 

Hope you liked the piece and that it works as per the brief and as a story on its own. I feel there's no point doing these exercises if I can't make them engaging and entertaining at the same time. As always, feel free to comment/criticise/tear it to literary shreds. 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

A Poem:What Use

I've not managed to make any progress on the third writing exercise today, as I'm struggling to find a decent premise, setting and character to base the piece on given the limited use of first-person pronouns. It's certainly a challenge, and has had me perplexed all day.

In the mean time, what about another poem from my archives? This one is a personal favourite of mine; playing around with the different fonts to create effect is not something I've really done a lot of, but I think it works here quite well, adding a visual element to the poem.

I can't recall exactly what inspired this one, it may have just been that the first lines popped into my head and it exploded from there (to be honest, a lot of my work is created in this way). What I can recall is that I wrote it first and then went back and added the 'special effects' fonts, and I certainly think they improve it.


What use is hope when there's no hope at all?
What use is virtue when heroes can fall?
What use is knowledge if we can't know it all?
What use is anything new?

What use is valour if we hide from the pain?
What use is fire if we can't find a flame?
What use is courage with nothing to gain?
What use is paying our dues?

What use is love when there's a world full of hate?
What use is time is no one will wait?
What use is foresight when we can't see our fate?
What use is light to the blind?

What use is trust with nothing to fear?
What use is running when darkness is near?
What use is talking when no one will hear ?

What use is waiting behind?

As always, if anyone has any thoughts, then feel free to leave a comment. 

Thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Deja Vu

As promised, the second instalment in the series of writing exercises. This one focuses on Deja Vu as per the brief, but I took a little bit of artistic license and went for more of a flashback/memory scene than a complete Deja Vu experience. Anyway, here goes:

Last Ship to Mars/2117/Long Walk Home (an exercise in Déjà vu)

‘I need to get away’ was all he could think as he made his way through the meandering queue. Judging from the sprawling mass of human desperation before him, it seemed the sentiment was shared by thousands, maybe millions. The huge bulk of the starship, that last starship away from Earth, consumed the skyline that was once London, and that now served as the launch pad for humanity’s last chance.

“Your last chance” she said, eyes dangerously close to flooding. “You can go, but I’m not coming with you.” He took a step towards the door and then stepped back.

He stepped back as a grav-bike raced past, no doubt some adrenaline addict enjoying the last few days before Earth went dark. With the Martian colony having officially closed the borders, supplies were running dangerously low. Earth had less than a week left before the lights went out forever. The lights-

“The light’s going out, love. What are you gonna do then, eh? Sit around here and knit your way to the apocalypse? Hope that madman from down the street can feed the both of you? There’s no other way. This is the last chance.”

“Last chance!” a vendor called from somewhere along the road. “Real Earth baked taties. Get ‘em while they’re ‘ot”. The queue shuffled forwards another yard or so, as the vendor made his way back along. Clearly staying. No one wanting out of this madness would walk away from the starship. There was every chance-

“There’s every chance you won’t get a seat. Every ‘sane’ human, a term you so lovingly exclude me from, will be heading to that ship, and we’re half a country away. You’ll never make it there on time. Just stay here and wait. Come on, it’s better than walking all that way and not getting a spot.”
“I have to try, my love. I have to.”

“Try ‘em, sir? Real Earth baked ‘taties. Only cost’ya a penny.”
“I’ve not got a penny spare.” He replied grimly.
“Well that ring yeh’ve got there, that’s gotta be worth a few.” The vendor was desperate now, jabbing at the metal band on his left hand. He reached for the ring and-

“Fine, then. Just take this.” she handed him the ring. “Take this and remember me. Remember me.” he took the ring, the metal warm from the heat of her hand. He pocketed it, hefted his backpack again, and headed for the door, not waiting long enough to see her cry. Better that way.

- paused for a moment. The metal, cold in the night air, seemed suddenly heavy.
“No.” he said, “Just no.”
“Something special, is it?” the vendor asked, grinning like a madman at the apocalypse. “Surely can’t be worth more than one last taste o’ Earth? Not now. C’mon sir, last chance!”
“Yes. Yes it is.” His eyes found something in the distance, something he couldn’t see, and the ring went back in his pocket. “My last chance.” He stood a little straighter, waved the vendor away with an air of finality, and turned. “My last chance.”

“Come home.” was the last thing he heard.

And he began to walk, one step at a time; the long, slow walk home. 

Author's notes:

-The setting here is a little different to anything I've written about before, and it's possibly something I want to do more with in future. It's not so much post-apocalyptic as pre-apocalyptic.

To elaborate a little more, the rough idea is that it's just about a century in the future, and Earth has colonised most of the Solar system in a period of very rapid expansion. However, as more and more planets are colonised, the human race flocks to these new paradises and abandon Earth, which slowly falls into ruin. Resources run out and the colonisers become dependant on the colonies, importing what they need from the other planets. When the other planets eventually refuse and close their borders, Mars offers one last ship away before Earth is plunged back into the Stone age. That's about it for now, but like I say, I may play with this idea a bit more later, possibly from someone who did take the last ship. I think that'll be when I get to the exercise about 'home'.

As for the story itself, I hope I have managed to gel together the past and present aspects of the plot and that it flows nicely. I think the ending is far more positive than that of the last one, but the common theme running through both is the idea that death, one way or another, is not the be-all-and-end-all of life.

The next exercise may take a little longer, as it's rather an interesting (if difficult) area. The idea is to write a 5-600 word piece in a first person narrative, but only using 'I' twice. It should be fun to attempt, at any rate.

Thanks for reading.

The Project

So, with introductions done, time for the first piece in an ongoing project that will feature on this blog. While looking around the web, I've stumbled across this series of writing exercises, aimed at improving one's technique, range of writing and just generally experimenting with writing in new and different ways.

The first exercise focuses on Synaesthesia,  rarely-seen technique that uses adjectives attributed to one sense to describe another. Many people will describe pain as sounds or smells in colour, and Synaesthesia focuses on this in writing, which often adds a more personal and 'real' touch to a piece.

So, without further ado, here is my response to the first exercise:

The Final Lights: An exercise in Synethesia.

Everything was loud. Every sound bit deep into his ears, and stayed there, clinging with bitter intensity. He could not shake off the subdued ringing, nor clear the distorted and searing stabs of light that attacked again and again. A wall of white noise hit him again, and for a second, he managed to focus on the face it came from. No words for him. Just painful, burning noise.

He felt the earth tremble as a sudden darkness moved past and shook him, and as it passed, the screaming lights recommenced their assault. He raised a hand to block them off, hoping to crawl back into the quieter shadows, but it was no good; the change was just as jarring as the constant flashes, and the blue pain at the back of his eyes had yet to subside.


She watched him shy away from the window as the lorry shuddered its way past, and felt a stab of pity. So long he had been like this, a pale ghost of a vibrant life. He coughed a wracking cough, and with it came a salty brown odour, like decaying bread. She resisted the urge to recoil from the pungent smell.

It pained her to see him like this, a hunched, choking and faded shell of a man. So long it had been now, since it began. The sudden fall from the height of life to the long, slow deterioration that had made him this; a sickly, watery remnant of who she remembered him to be. A single tear snaked its way down her face.

He was dying, she knew that. It had been three months since they had known for sure, and ever since then the days had seemed ever greyer. Every sunrise had taken on a sour note like the last bars of a sullen lament, and it set each day with the weight of a thousand year’s pain. Each of his rattling breaths pierced at her heart like the slow point of a needle sewing the tapestry of her own dying moments on the fabric of time. 

She reached down and lifted the white china cup to his greying lips and tilted it gently, taking care not to let the tea spill. He sipped weakly, drawing in only a tiny amount of the liquid, and a moment later, coughed again.


The pain was unbearable this time, burning and freezing, screaming in silence, dark and light. Waves of blue pain throbbed behind his eyes as orange-white agony burned them away. With every movement came a creaking, sombre ache, a note played an octave lower than was right. The dissonant crashes rose to a crescendo of colour and the world fell apart.

He had no idea how long this went on, a minute, a year, a lifetime; all were only quantifiers for the anguish. And then, all at once, it stopped. The light was no longer blinding, the sound no longer stabbing, and the hot-cold shudders of movement fell still. The stormy blue pain faded to reveal a calm and clear sky. Seeing again for the first time the face he loved, her eyes singing him into the calm, he knew. He knew it was over, the age of torture.

And with that sudden knowing there came a sweeter, softer light, calling him away with the songs he had been unknowingly waiting for all his life. He stood without moving, and walked, slowly, into this new place, leaving behind the body that had endured so much pain. He stepped into the song and became a part of it, a voice among thousands calling home the lost.


She watched his face change, from the wordless and soundless scream to the tranquil, bright peace, and she knew. She knew it was over, the age of worry. She took his hand but there was no warmth, no sense of life, only stillness. He was at peace now, and as the last rays of sunlight sung him away, her own heart joined the song, a lament and a prayer and an echo of younger days.

And as the last notes faded, it was over. For her too, it was over.

Author's notes: With this piece, the aim was simple. Use the technique Synaesthesia to create a really personal and human feel in such an emotional scene. When I first heard about the technique, I was instantly reminded of the sensations one gets when experiencing a migraine, when lights, sounds and the slightest of movements are confused and painful. As such, that was what I based the opening on, and it grew from there. I may have overdone the use of the technique, but in a way that was the aim of the exercise. Of course, if I were writing this piece for another purpose, I would use it more sparingly and with other techniques mixed in more thoroughly. 

I hope to have done a good job of handling the subject matter in a delicate and respectful manner and attached the emotion it deserves. In this piece, I also tried to highlight the idea of death as a release; the man is released from his long suffering while his wife is freed from the constant worry and fear for him. 

The piece is not intended to be at all religious in theme, and perhaps spiritual is a more fitting term. It is not entirely mundane, to say the least, but I attempted to make the final scenes focus more on the freedom and release than any idea of an afterlife. 

As always, any comments, criticism or observations are more than welcome. I have the next piece on Deja Vu almost ready to post; it will be up in the next couple of hours. 

Thanks for reading. 

Getting Started...

Welcome, all, to this blog, where I shall be posting all sorts of fun, literary-related stuff. You can expect poetry, short fiction, book reviews and more. If anyone wants to suggest any content in the comments, please do, as I'm always looking for new ideas.

So, to start things off, how about a poem?

The Poet’s Notebook

See the Poet’s notebook, the half-unfinished words,
The songs and tales of love and loss and songs you never heard.
Take the paper in your hand and open up the book,
And lose yourself and step inside, lost in just one look.

A Poet’s world is a place to be,
So much to think, to say and see.
And words to write and songs to sing,
A word and song for anything.

See the Poet’s notebook, there’s stories on the page,
Tales of here and now and then and every other age.
Read the words and see the mind that brought those words to you,
The words so old from long ago and maybe something new.

A Poet’s world is a place to hide,
And who knows if the Poet lied?
Who cares if what he says is true?
It’s all the same, to me and you. 

Hope you enjoyed that, and it gave a taste of things to come. Any comments are more than welcome. Up next, some short fiction.