How tone affects content: an exercise

For this exercise we were asked to write a scene, then create two new versions, one elaborate and one pared down, to see what difference tone makes to the story.

My natural style is already ‘minimalist’, and I felt paring down the passage didn’t do it any favours. A sparse style is best for moments of fast-moving action, and this scene called for more detail. I enjoyed writing the elaborate version, although it seemed to go against all the advice we receive about ornate prose and redundant words – particularly adjectives!

The passage below is from the same hypothetical novel as Child of the Moor which I submitted our last assignment. A family have found a young child abandoned on the moor, but have hesitated to call the police because the superstitious grandmother is convinced he’s her brother returned from the dead. They have finally called, and the old woman has retreated in a rage. Jenny, the mother, goes to collect the child.

The first version

‘I think I can hear the police car. About time.’ Jenny’s husband glanced at the steam-scorched kitchen clock. ‘You’d better get him.’

She stepped into the hallway. They’d switched off the light to soothe their visitor, but the yard lamps shone through the curtain, making the far wall glow like mist. It was enough for her to see that the living room door hung open. Hadn’t she shut it? She paused to listen. The house was quiet. Beyond Leo’s shuffling and throat-clearing, there was no sound. Not even the gentle catch of a toddler’s snore.

The sofa lay in a pool of black. The boy might cry when the light came rushing in, wrenching him awake in this unknown place. Well, there was no choice. She fumbled for the wall switch. As the room filled with buttery light, she peered at the blankets and saw at once that they were too flat to contain a child.

She stooped to check the floor as though a three-year-old might have slid himself into the inch-high gap beneath the sofa, but she knew already he was gone. A ghost, she thought, a ghost after all.

Somebody banged on the house door. It was a loud imperious knock, not the subtle and timid rattle that announced a member of the family. A chair scraped. Jenny scurried back into the hall, flicking another switch so that the dusty chandelier spilled drops of sickly light. The room was empty. Silence boomed around her.

‘Leo!’ She tried to warn him but the words stuck in her throat. Wood rasped on stone and a chill draught cut through the house. She heard the confident echo of a man’s voice.

‘Evening, sir! What a turn-up, eh?’

Jenny glanced at the stairwell. The house seemed to be holding its breath.

An elaborate version.

The clock’s tick had rarely seemed so loud. Jenny watched the hands crawl upwards beneath the streaks of dirt and steam, accretions left by decades of kitchen toil, and she willed them on. The sooner they had the boy out of the house, the better; his presence was uncanny, inexplicable; he’d raised an unholy hope in her mother, and God alone knew what would happen if he stayed much longer.

‘I think I can hear the police car. About time. You’d better get him.’

It was unspoken between them that she, not her husband, would go back into the dark rooms and pluck the little revenant, as her mother suspected he was, from his slumber. Leo was not fond of heavy doses of the weird. As for her mother, Jenny didn’t know where she’d vanished to, which shadowy corner; the look in the old woman’s eyes had been so sharp, so bitter, that Jenny hadn’t wanted to question her.

The hallway was swamped in shadow. A murky light transformed the cloth across the far window into a rectangle of blood, dull copper blood, congealing; the far wall gleamed like the side of a tomb. It reminded her of a picture she saw once, a chapel in France made of skulls. Come on now, she scolded herself.

But why was the child’s door open; not the child’s door, of course, but the familiar battered old thing that led into their living room, with its lumpy sofa and the old television, the book shelves and ornaments and magazine rack and discarded slippers and all the rest.

It was a pit of darkness that could have gone on for ever. She almost stubbed her fingers fumbling so eagerly for the light. Dull yellow shot through the room and touched upon its clutter and its edges, and for a moment she saw the figure of a woman in the television screen, but the figure moved and it was her.

Soft blue blankets lay in a snarl on the sofa. The child had left his imprint, but he wasn’t there.

Jenny bent down, she peered beneath the sofa where only a mouse might fit, and she straightened to stare into the nest of cables behind the television and at the tops of shelves, even the domed head of the grandfather clock, but there was no child, no child there at all.

He had faded back into the immaterial like the ghost he was.

A bang at the house door made her jump with shock. This was no timid knock by a relative. She rushed back into the hall and knocked the switch that activated the old chandelier, a heavy dribble of glass that splattered the carpet with a pathetic shower of light. She wanted to call to Leo but the words wouldn’t come. They stuck in her throat. The hallway was empty; there was nobody there, nobody behind her nor at the window now tamed to burgundy, nor on the stairs.

Wood rasped on stone and a blade of ice cut through the house. A man’s voice boomed.

‘Evening, sir! What a turn up, eh?’

A stripped-down version

They’d been watching the clock for half an hour. When Jenny’s husband heard the police car, he told her to go back into the house and fetch the child.

The hall was dark. Some outside light caught the curtain and cast a glow on the far wall. It was enough for Jenny to see by. She noted that the living room door was open, although she thought she had shut it. Perhaps it drifted open.

She could hear Leo in the kitchen, shuffling in his chair. She heard the phlegmy clearing of his throat. The child was silent. It was merciful for him that he was sleeping so soundly; he wouldn’t remember any of this.

Within seconds, she knew different. The sofa was empty. There was no little boy asleep anywhere, not on the floor or behind the furniture. He had vanished like the ghost her mother thought he was.

Leo, she wanted to cry out, and she managed one word. The others wouldn’t come. It was too late. A knock had shaken the door. A stranger’s knock, not a cautious family member.

There was a scrape of wood on stone and a blast of cruel winter air. The stranger was in their house. But they had no child to hand over.

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Studying Style: Maximalism and Minimalism

Over the last fortnight we’ve been looking at ‘style’. We are asked: do we favour maximalism or minimalism?

Maximalist writing tends towards elaboration and excess. It uses long sentences and is heavily sown with metaphors and similes.

Minimalist writing is pared down and likely to be paratactical. It’s more sparing in its imagery.

We were asked to provide examples of both types of writing in work by published authors, then to discuss where on the spectrum our own writing lies.

Here’s the response of another student, Robert Day. How would you characterise your writing?

My response to the exercise

Examples of minimalism

Ryan’s father died in December. His mother rang him early in the morning. Your father died during the night, she said. Her voice was weary. It was just another thing her husband had done to alarm her. It was news of an affair. It was sitting at the kitchen table with him while he explained why they had no money.

Eoin McNamee – Resurrection Man

Her chores accomplished, she sites on the sofa and dozes. She doesn’t leave the apartment all week and spends each day in the living room, with the television on. She never sleeps in Paul and Myriam’s bed. She sleeps on the sofa. In order not to spend any money, she eats whatever she finds in the fridge and makes a start on the reserves in the pantry; Myriam probably has no idea what’s in there anyway.

Leïla Slimani – Lullaby

Examples of maximalism

Her feet had broadened and grown homely in these fourteen years of marriage, but since they have acquired their warped nails and yellow callouses in my service, in the performance of tasks for our common household, there is for me a certain affecting beauty about them. Our bones spread, the knit of our flesh loosens, no matter how we diet.

John Updike – Roger’s Version

The reached the water—the tide was out—mud and shingle gleamed in the westering light, and someone had wreathed the bones of Leviathan in yellow branches of broom. Sedge grew in soft pale sheaves that shimmered when the wind took them; a little distance away they heard the deep implausible booming of a bitten. The air was sweet and clear: it went in like good wine.

Sarah Perry – The Essex Serpent

An example of my own writing

I’d put myself more towards the minimalist end of the spectrum. I prefer shorter, snappier sentences to long flowing ones; I don’t spend a great deal of time casting around for poetic imagery, but prefer the action to carry the story. This is bound to reflect the kind of subject matter I choose, which is often dystopianism or the supernatural.

This example is from an activity last year. The task was to link together a chain of events going backwards in time. Here, a man wakes up to find a zombie in his house.

Martin sat up, gasping. Soupy grey light oozed in through the bedroom window. His heart was pounding and warm sweat leaked from his pores.

A silence pressed on his ears. It was fractured by a creak, subtle; perhaps the wood of the landing swelling with early heat, but also perhaps, in his dream-haunted mind, the tread of a stranger. Martin held his breath.

A rattling moan echoed through the dark and Martin jerked convulsively.

Something was scraping against the door. It grated on its hinges.

Jodie had warned him. She’d sounded so odd last night. Martin thought at the time he’d simply caught a reflection of his own nerves. Their house was always cold when his wife was gone, but there’d been an added shadow last night, an eeriness that made him afraid to open curtains and locked the breath in his throat whenever he walked into an unlit room.

‘I’m worried, Martin’, she’d said. ‘There’s something happening in London. It was on the news, but suddenly they aren’t talking about it. Make sure the doors and windows are bolted tonight.’

Something kept him away from the television. Getting home from work had been fraught enough. Flames danced at the end of roads. A couple had wrestled savagely on the corner of Rowan Close, forcing him to drive around them. The woman clutched at the roof of his car, surely to steady herself, but it’d seemed in that panicky moment as though she’d lunged to attack. On Marina Road he’d spotted a tiny child wandering alone, but just when he was deciding to pull over, a woman bolted out of nowhere and pounced on it like a dog on a rabbit. Martin arrived home with sweat prickling under his armpits.

Even at lunch time, with the sun casting its harsh logical glow on the city, there’d been a sense of something off-kilter. On the stretch of green near his office, a man in a suit bashed himself repeatedly against a tree, as though trying to walk through it. A crowd of people looked on.

‘He’s having a fit, I reckon,’ Martin’s workmate suggested. ‘One of those should help him. Folk today, eh.’

Martin wasn’t paying close attention. That morning his mind had been full of his last conversation with Jodie. He sat at his desk, eyes directed at the laptop screen but not processing the lines of green and red. His boss popped up behind him and remarked in a tone too sharp to be friendly, ‘are you with us today, Martin?’

Jodie had been gone three days. She had called at eight – midnight in Los Angeles. Her voice was husky from jet lag and hours of talking.

‘Martin, they’ve asked me to stay another week.’

He’d gripped the receiver. ‘You promised you wouldn’t let them do this again.’

‘I’m sorry, it’s hard for me too – ‘

‘You know I don’t like being here on my own.’

She sighed and an uncharacteristic waspishness invaded her tone. ‘Martin, you’re not a – I have to do this, okay? You’ll be fine! What could go wrong?’

He’d snapped that she must be tired, and he hung up. Climbing into his car, he noticed a woman staggering along the opposite side of the road. An odd time to be drunk, he thought, and then he switched on the radio and forgot all about it.

How do writers start out?

There are many routes to getting published. As part of its Writer in the World stream, the OU asks us to choose two successful authors and find out how they became established. I’ve selected Suzanne Collins, creator of The Hunger Games, and horror writer Stephen King.

Back in 2012, when The Hunger Games entered mainstream consciousness, the Guardian described Suzanne Collins as ‘a bit of mystery’. She was someone who didn’t ‘do publicity, hasn’t even met her UK publishers, and seemed to treat the red carpet reluctantly’. The Guardian noted that her website at the time concentrated on an earlier fantasy series, only mentioning the Games in brief.

Collins grew up in a military family, constantly moving schools. Her father was a great storyteller with ‘a sense of exactly how much a child could handle, which is quite a bit‘. She studied Theatre Arts during the eighties and earned a Masters of Fine Arts in dramatic writing. By the time her career began, she was almost thirty. Working for children’s television, she helped produce Little Bear and Clarissa Explains It All. During this time she received a Writers’ Guild in America nomination for animation.

It was meeting a children’s author, James Proimos, that led Collins into writing for children. Proimos was so impressed by her work, he hired her as his head writer. Between 2003 and 2007 she wrote the five books of the Underland Chronicles, the first of which had been inspired by Alice in Wonderland. In 2004 she won the NAIBA Children’s Novel Award. The Hunger Games came out in 2008, inspired in part by the insights into war Collins had received through her father’s military career.

Collins’ path to publication began with a childhood that furnished her with a story to tell; she studied drama and writing up to Masters level and used her qualifications to secure a job in television. There she met an established author who encouraged her, and she published her first book when she more than forty years old.

Stephen King’s trajectory was quite different, as his book On Writing explains.

Like Collins, King had an unsettled childhood. He began writing stories and sending them off to magazines when he was about thirteen, studying markets in his ‘beat-up Writer’s Digest‘. It was a process of learning from mistakes: one publisher advised him not to staple manuscripts. By the time he was fourteen, ‘the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it’. He persisted. Later, he found that having some success under your belt could be enough to swing the balance with magazine publishers. King’s brother was also a novice writer, and together they worked on an amateur newspaper. While still in high school, King self-published and sold copies of his version of The Pit and the Pendulum—his ‘first best-seller’ at three dozen copies until the was summoned to the principal’s office.

Having trained as a teacher, King couldn’t find work and took a job in a laundry. He soon had young kids to support; the family struggled through poverty. When he finally landed a role as an English teacher, ‘for the first time in my life, writing was hard’. He was lucky that his wife encouraged him. ‘Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.’ At this time he was writing his first novel, Carrie, which he sent to a friend at Doubleday and forgot about. It was a great day when he heard it’d been accepted. As he didn’t have an agent, he didn’t realise the advance they’d given him was tiny. The publication process was so slow, King became consumed with family problems and forgot his book. That was, until he received the call that told him it was a huge success, and his financial troubles were over.

Collins seems to have enjoyed an easier start than King. What they have in common is an early appreciation of story-telling, encouragement from others, and at least one contact within the industry who was able to help them. Above all, it was their commitment and love for writing that pushed them towards success.

Child of the Moors

The TMA result is in! It’s a merit for me. The standard is a lot higher this year; there’s quite a jump between the two parts of the Masters. I was pleased with the feedback, which was thorough: positives included the setting and mood, character development and a structure that showed ‘technical fluency’. The tutor thought the main character should have been more active, and made a couple of suggestions about the plot. This is the beginning of a hypothetical novel, in which a family discover a child out on the moors and come to believe he’s their own missing relative returned after seven decades. They don’t immediately call the police because the domineering mother, Clara, tells them to wait; this will complicate matters when they have to pretend that they found the child later than they did. The tutor thought their failure to call the police wasn’t adequately explained.

Anyway, here it is. As it’s part of the novel, it opens with a brief summary of the plot.

This novel opens with a discovery. Jenny, middle-aged and browbeaten, is walking on the moors when she finds a small child tucked into a gap in the rocks. When she carries him home, her widowed mother is immediately convinced that the boy is her own brother who vanished on the moors some seventy years before. The local area is rich with legends of disappearances going back to Medieval times, mostly of children.

Jenny’s family has lived at the edge of the moor for generations. They have developed their own rituals and superstitious thinking. Because of Clara’s powerful belief that the boy is the missing Tom, the family hesitates at first to contact the police. As strange events escalate around the farmhouse, a DNA test proves the boy is a close relative. The local vet and the family of missing girl Megan Price are among the people who get involved; the story is also picked up by the national press. The truth however is not that the boy is a ghost or a time child, but the son of Megan, who had been abducted and held prisoner by the vet. Unknown to the family, the vet is Jenny’s half-brother.

When Jenny first heard the sound, it made her think of wind howling through cracks in the rock. That was odd in itself, because the air hung cold and still.

She was tramping upwards, following a muddy and fern-fringed path that coiled high into the moors. Sam, her collie, powered on ahead. The breath was snagging in her lungs by the time she reached the top, and she rested against the great rock slab with its covering of moss that glowed bright on sunny days. Today the sky was bleak, holding on to a burden of rain.

Strange, that noise. It teased at the back of her brain, but the moor was so familiar, the routine so ordinary that she was numb to any novelty. Instead she squinted down at Hirst Farm and frowned to see the collapsed sticks and wire at the end of the orchard. Leo should have fixed that by now, even though there were no animals to keep in. Well, he’d told her when they married that he was no farmer.

The sound picked up, rising in tone. It seemed to come from somewhere close by, but she was alone except for Sam, who’d plunged down the other side of the hill and was thrashing about in a sea of ferns.

Never mind, then. She let her mind wander to the cross jutting out of the rock. Although small, it had escaped the encroaching moss. As she often did, she gave the metal a reverential pat. Tom’s cross. Poor vanished Tom. Her own uncle, swallowed into the earth a lifetime ago.

This was no time to remember old stories. She opened her mouth to call Sam, but then the sound came again.

It was unmistakable—a high-pitched cry.

Surely not human, not on an afternoon like this and at this time of year. Perhaps an injured animal. A few feet away from Jenny, the rocks parted above a cave just wide enough to hold a lamb. It would be a strange early creature if it were a lamb.

When she peered into the crack, a foetid stench of water-logged leaves rose up to meet her. For a moment all was dark, but then came a ripple of white. Something must have blown in there: a plastic bag, perhaps, a stricken bird or a scrap of wool.

The shadows stirred again, and Jenny found herself looking into the eyes of a child.

She must have yelled, because Sam’s head snapped up from his playground. As she plunged down the slope, her boots gouging into the mud, he rushed to join her. He was barking when she dropped to a crouch at the end of the fissure.

‘Hello?’

The poor thing had been shocked into silence.

‘I can’t reach you. You’re too far in.’

He was huddled in the furthest corner, a knot of arms and knees. Dark hair flopped across a grubby forehead and his trousers were splattered with streaks of earth. He looked no more than three years old.

‘Come on.’ Jenny glanced over her shoulder, hoping to see another adult nearby. ‘Where is your mummy?’

She had to scold Sam away. It was a while before the boy unfolded himself and began his crawl towards the light.

*

He wouldn’t walk. Jenny struggled beneath his weight, gritting her teeth against the twinges in her spine. Sam didn’t help, lunging across the path. Every minute or so, when she had the breath, she called, but nobody answered.

She was trembling by the time they reached the yard. When her boots found the chequered floor of the porch, she lowered the boy and sagged against the wall. He made no effort to stand, but slumped onto the mat beside the iron tokens her mother had scattered to ward off evil. It was a minute before Jenny felt able to knock—the special pattern that revealed it was her—and let herself in. The hall was warm and flooded with a mixture of smells, cleaning spray and baked bread among them. Her mother must be indoors; Jenny could hear the television’s drone. Although it sent more pain chasing up her back, she lifted the boy and hauled him into the kitchen.

‘Mum? I need—’

A crash sent her whirling around, clumsy with the weight of the child. Clara was standing at the pantry door. Around her feet lay turquoise fragments of pot.

‘Oh God. Mum? Are you alright?’

Her mother’s face had pinched in on itself; she made a vague, trembling motion towards the pot.

‘Mum, I’m sorry I startled you. We have to call the police. I found this little boy on the moor. His parents aren’t anywhere.’

She set the boy down before the hearth. Clara peered, as though some supernatural creature had manifested itself on her kitchen rug. Slowly she moved towards him, the shards crunching beneath her slippered feet. She brushed his pale cheek with her fingers.

‘He’s cold. Cold as a ghost.’

‘Can you look after him while I phone?’ Jenny’s voice quavered.

Clara knelt. She was studying the boy so intently that his eyes widened, and for a moment he looked much older; almost adult.

‘There’ll be no calling the police.’

‘What? But—’

‘His parents must still be up there. Go find them. You could be accused of child abduction.’

The kitchen window faced out onto the moors, and Jenny could see an orange sun already touching the Dragon’s Teeth. ‘Mum, they might be at the police station already.’

‘Why are you always so stubborn?’

Christ. There was no point arguing with her mother, even with Jenny the age she was and a mum herself. She took a step away. Clara had scooped the child’s hair back and raised his chin to examine him more closely.

‘I’ll call Leo. He can come home from work.’

‘No, I’ll ring him.’ Clara didn’t look at her. ‘You go on, before it’s dark.’

Maybe she was right. What if he’d been playing hide and seek? Perhaps his brothers were still wading through the bracken, sobbing and calling. Jenny could’ve got herself into a lot of trouble.

She grabbed her mobile from the worktop. It was useless higher up, but she’d phone Leo from the yard. The moor was no place to be alone, with dark coming.

*

They were empty, those eyes. The boy didn’t want to look at Clara, but what he did see, she couldn’t know. He was confused, thrown out of the natural order of things.

She leant towards his porcelain curl of an ear and whispered. ‘What is your name?’

He pressed his lips so tightly that a bead of spittle formed.

‘Can you remember… anything?’

He was staring at the rug, tracing its clots of dirt with a finger.

‘Do you remember… me?’

The boy looked up, frowned and dropped his head again.

Clara sighed. She was being ridiculous, surely. ‘You’re an abandoned waif aren’t you?’ She stroked his head; his hair was soft as a kitten’s. ‘You can’t be anything else.’

Those vacant eyes were on her as she grabbed a chair and hauled herself up. The black-framed mirror was in a drawer on the other side of the room, buried beneath candles and bobbins. She brought it back to the hearth and paused just a moment before, swiftly stooping, she thrust it in front of his face. A child’s pallid features filled the glass.

She’d been holding her breath. ‘You’re solid enough. What is your name?’

A gust rattled the window and she almost dropped the mirror. ‘Something crept off the moors. I can feel it. Can you?’

He mumbled. Lowering herself on painful knees, she tried to catch his words.

It sounded like ‘help us’.

*

A breeze was whipping round the hilltops as Jenny clambered upwards. She’d tried to bring Sam, but she’d made the mistake of feeding him and now he wanted to rest his belly. Half a mile distant, smoke poured from the chimney of the vet’s cottage. A minuscule figure was striding across the yard towards an outhouse. It would have been pointless to shout.

As the sun eased itself below the horizon, the rocks cast nets of shadow. Jenny walked and called. At Pilot’s Haunt, where years ago a Hurricane crashed, she stopped. Was that a flash of red? Clothing? Worse? In that moment she’d have given anything to meet a wild-eyed hiker screaming about a kidnapped child. But the red was tangled leaves. Nobody yelled and nothing appeared.

This was stupid. She shouldn’t have let her mother talk her out of calling the police. She turned to go back when, at the base of the path, something moved.

It was only Leo. He was yelling, but at first the wind carried the sense away. He’d come straight from the office and was hobbling over the clumpy grass in neat shoes, his jacket flapping around him. As soon as he was close enough she grabbed his shoulder.

‘There’s no one here. We should call the police, and quick.’

‘You mean you haven’t already?’

‘I didn’t—Mum might have.’

He rolled his eyes. ‘You know she bloody won’t have done. When does she ever phone strangers? She’s as useful as a tin handkerchief. Well, were there any cars parked at the Outcrop?’

Jenny hadn’t been that far up. Together, they climbed the path until they could make out the grey triangle where hikers left their vehicles. It was deserted. Leo brushed at a skeletal fern that had snagged on his trousers. ‘Weird isn’t it. Normally kids vanish up here.’

‘Maybe one came back.’ As soon as it was out, Jenny wished she hadn’t said it.

‘Huh. Ten years since the last one went.’ They turned to trudge downhill. ‘Megan Price.’

‘I swear her parents still come up here looking.’ For a moment it felt as though the Prices might appear, struggling hand in hand over the stones, Lucy clutching the purple ribbon that used to belong to her daughter.

Jenny glanced back. There was nothing behind them but twilight.

*

Hirst Farm was gleaming. Light spilled across its yard, and as they crossed it Sam romped towards them, evidently barred from the house.

‘We’ll call the police as soon as we get in,’ Leo said. Jenny could tell he was rattled. He didn’t give the ritual knock, but banged sharply and let the door fly open. She heard him say ‘how—’; then came a scream like a rabbit in a snare. Leo stopped so abruptly, she nearly cannoned into him.

The screech tailed off into a whimper, and a chair scraped. Sam, who’d been pushing against Jenny’s legs, wormed past her. She craned over Leo’s shoulder to see what was happening.

Her mother was standing by the table with the child in her arms, his head buried in her neck. After that first shriek he was quiet, but he clung so tightly to the old woman that he threatened to break her. There was something different about him; Clara had dug out a set of toddler’s clothes, green and white.

Leo clattered forward, allowing Jenny to squeeze past. She reached the table in four strides, slipped an arm beneath the boy and lowered him into a chair. He was quivering like a hunted fawn.

‘Did you call anyone?’ Leo glared at the phone on its hook.

‘There wasn’t a soul about,’ Jenny told Clara. ‘His mum and dad might already be at the police station. We need to—’

‘They won’t be,’ Clara interrupted. Her eyes were glittering; she looked almost ill. ‘They’re probably out of their minds on drink in some disgusting flat. Have you seen the shade of the poor darling? He’s grey as a ghost. We can’t send him back to people like that.’

‘It’s not up to us.’ Leo’s voice rose. He was trapped, kept away by the boy’s shrinking and shivering. ‘If it’s rough for him at home, the police’ll chuck him into care.’

Something white caught Jenny’s eye. Chalk was looping across the flagstones, circling the chairs by the hearth. It hadn’t been there before.

‘Mum, he can’t stay here. They might already ask questions about why we haven’t phoned.’

Clara stared at Jenny; Leo might have been a phantom. ‘Look,’ she said, and Jenny noticed what her eyes had seen but not understood—the cardboard box on the table, blotched with age, its corners fixed with tape. A relic of years ago. Her mother pushed back the flap and drew out a photograph. It was sepia and dog-eared, with a crease across the bottom. Jenny experienced a tingly recognition.

The face in the picture was babyish and smiling, with thick hair feathering across an infant brow.

‘Little Tom.’ Clara held the photo up. Once, Jenny had spent hours studying that pudgy grin. It was Tom of the memorial cross, Tom who vanished.

Jenny looked from the photograph to the child and back again to the photograph. The likeness between the living boy and the one who vanished was so uncanny, they might have been twins.

Word count: 2182 words

Finding out about local writing groups

One way to meet other writers, get encouragement and receive feedback on your work is to join a local writing group. Once you start looking, you’ll find quite a few of them about. Here’s a list of groups and initiatives in my stamping ground, Nottingham. Many of these groups meet at The Mechanics, ‘a centre of Cultural, Educational and Social activity’ based near the Theatre Royal.

1) Nottingham Writers’ Club ‘welcomes everyone who loves to write’. With a quarterly magazine, twenty-two meetings and four competitions a year, the club is one of Nottingham’s most active writing groups. It’s probably the oldest, established more than ninety years ago.

2) Nottingham Writer’s Studio is the ‘only dedicated writing facility of its kind in the UK’. Based in Nottingham’s Creative Quarter, it offers courses and workshops, agent one-to-ones, and mentoring.

3) Notts Writing Group was formed in 2010, and now meets for two hours every Monday at the Bell Inn off Market Square. According to the website, meetings start with news, ideas and project updates, followed by writing exercises. It describes itself as ‘a social club for writers’ where people can gain encouragement, practise their skills, generate ideas and find critical feedback.

https://nottswritinggroup.com/

4) Based in Newark, the Fosseway Writers aim to provide a welcoming environment for local writers, support local people who want to try writing, and help members develop their writing skills.

https://fossewaywriters.wordpress.com/

5) Trowell and District Writers was formed in 1997 and sponsors its own ‘Poetry and Short Story’ competition. It encourages ‘an inter group critique scheme, as sometimes honest critique within your own group can be difficult’.

https://sites.google.com/site/trowellwriters/

7) STANZA Nottingham are members of the National Poetry Society who meet once at month at the Malt Cross to read and discuss poetry.

https://nottinghamstanza.weebly.com/

8) The ‘Inspire’ site has some useful local links, such as this one: ‘First steps to writing your novel’, a six-week course at West Bridgeford Library. https://www.inspireculture.org.uk/whats-on/events/2019/01/first-steps-writing-your-novel-eve-makis-west-bridgford-library/

9) Another way to meet writers and get feedback is to take a couse, like this one at Nottingham Trent University: https://www.ntu.ac.uk/study-and-courses/courses/find-your-course/arts-humanities/short-courses/2018-19/creative-writing-for-beginners

10) Still looking? The local council lists writing groups on its website. Here are a few I haven’t mentioned already:

DIY Poets

Third Tuesday of the month, 8pm at the Peacock pub, Mansfield Road, Nottingham. Contact: 07905 322813

Lowdham Writers’ Group

Second Tuesday of the month, 7:30pm at the Old Ship Inn, Main St, Lowdham. Contact: Nick Sparrow 0115 914 4057

Nottingham Poetry Society

Fourth Saturday of the month, 2:45pm, at the Mechanics. Contact: 01773 712282

Nottingham Shakespeare Society

First and Third Tuesday of the month, 7pm, at the Mechanics. Contact:
0115 925 6551

https://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/libraries/library-activities-and-events/

What motivates you to study, and other questions

The OU has asked me to take part in a survey on Masters degrees. My answers are below. If you’re a Masters student, how would you answer them? What motivates you to study?

What motivates you to study?

I suppose I like to find out about things. I’ve always read a lot, especially about history, politics and psychology. I enjoy writing, but have found it very hard to get motivated by myself; it takes far more energy to write a story than to read one! One benefit of creative writing courses is that they force you to take writing seriously and focus on your work. They also help improve your skills, drive you to write regularly, put you in touch with other people who’re interested in writing, and make you aware of opportunities to get your work out there.

Turning in assignments encourages you to produce your best work, although creative writing is naturally quite subjective and it can be hard to know what will earn the highest marks.

I’m not studying creative writing for a career. It’s a hobby for me. I might try entering some competitions and even self-publishing in the future.

For me, a Masters was a natural progression from a Bachelors. It’s a chance to study what you’re interested in at a higher level. Masters degrees are more career-oriented, and the onus is on the student to teach themselves through research and practice.

What skills does an MA student need?

A certain amount of dedication. We’re expected to read and research by ourselves, taking the course as a basis. There’s something else an MA student needs, and it isn’t a skill – it’s ample time and opportunity to study.

On a Creative Writing course, I’d say that the courage to experiment and to try different things is also a positive. At the same time, the Masters is still academic, and detailed analyses of writing technique seem just as important as turning out well-written stories.

What do you think the main differences are (if any) between MA and undergraduate study?

There is less guidance, and more choice. For example, we’re just about to go into a phase where we can study another genre for two weeks, and if we want we could look into more than one. The academic standard does seem more exacting at this level, too. We’re expected to go more deeply into the subject.

There has been a sharp drop in student numbers in the second year, which was discouraging at first. We seem to rely heavily on other students for feedback and guidance. I’ve never done a Masters before so can only assume this is how they all are.

What do you think about exit points: Postgraduate Certificates (60 credits) and Diplomas (120 credits)? Is it good to have them, or do you not care about them?

I think it’s a good idea if someone can’t complete the entire Masters. Some students might find them motivational as well – another milestone reached. Personally I haven’t looked into them.

What do you think is most suitable for you? An MA with two modules (with a 120-credit year), or an MA with three equally weighted modules?

I would have to say three equally weighted modules. On the Creative Writing MA, we study sixty credits worth in the first year and 120 in the second. It’s a huge amount of work, and for those of us who’re studying part time because of jobs and other commitments, it’s too much. Three modules would spread the burden. I’d imagine that the third part would be devoted almost entirely to independent work.

How focused would you like the modules to be? Very focused on some specific areas, or a broader base?

Personally I like them to be broader, as that obviously covers more content and gives us a chance to play around with different ideas. It would depend on the purpose of the module though.

Would you like to see options within modules, or would you prefer to choose from a wider selection of more specific modules?

I think options within modules.

What sort of assessment do you prefer (TMAs, exams, EMAs, forum activities, oral presentations, collaborative projects etc)?

I’ve done one collaborative project with the OU, and I didn’t feel it was a very constructive experience. You end up with one or two people doing all the work. Forum activities are fine, though, and encourage people to learn from one another. Of course that assumes that people will join in, and everyone’s work gets critiqued! I appreciate that the OU facilitates that by making forum work part of assignments.

At my age, formal exams don’t appeal to me at all. Oral presentations also don’t suit me. I prefer coursework—it allows you to take your time and show off your abilities as well as you can.

There is one point I’d like to mention about the TMA/EMA set-up, though. I’ve found on almost every course, not just creative writing, that after a gradual rise in TMA marks the EMA will score lower, regardless of how much effort you put into it. Has anyone else noticed that, or is it just me? Maybe I’m over-polishing the EMA!

Completing an assignment: the final push

This weekend, I’m using what limited time I have to finish TMA 02. The story itself has been redrafted and polished, but not yet exposed to the Fiction Genre forum. A couple of days ago I gathered my notes together and wrote the commentary and its references.

Since quite a few of us find commentaries tricky, a fellow student has started a thread to discuss them. The first thing I do this morning is go over my own commentary, making sure it covers the main points while cutting it down to 550 words—not an easy task! Block 2 of the course looked at multiple perspectives, time shifts and anti-heroes. I’ve found from experience that if I try to mention everything, it won’t go well. My focus here will be on perspective.

I’m also putting more emphasis on what I’ve learned from the course and how it’s influenced my choices.

It’s encouraging to see that the other student has written something fairly similar to myself, but drawing on different sources. We both begin by talking about the genesis of the story, before devoting most of the commentary to multiple perspectives, with a few words on unsympathetic characters. One of the major differences between our commentaries is that the other student talks more about his work, while mine is quite abstract. He’s also referred to books outside the course, which I’ve neglected to do this time, so that’s something for me to consider. The only suggestion I have for him is that he could mention how he might use these techniques in future.

Having printed out the latest draft of the TMA, I spend a few hours working through it. This time I’m starting from the final section and going backwards. Editing is a laborious task, and you tend to stop paying attention. The middle or end of a story might not get the same amount of care lavished on it, while the beginning can end up being worked and reworked until it’s a self-conscious mess.

Meanwhile, the fellow student over on the TMA board has produced an excellent, detailed critique of my commentary, analysing it paragraph by paragraph. Although generally positive, he’s picked up on a digression, non-sequiturs, a clumsy transition between subjects and the fact that ‘the author seems to have faded out a little’ while ‘the highest-marked essays all seem to remain rooted in the individual writer’s journey’.

Next day I rework the commentary, bringing in more about the story and the knowledge I’ve gained since writing a multiple perspective piece last year. One person has reviewed my story over on the Fiction Genre forum. It’s strange how the dog comes in for criticism. The main character is walking the dog when she discovers a child alone on the moor. That collie’s behaviour gets more analysis than the human characters!

On day three, I’m back at work. Before setting out into the cold I polish the commentary some more, adding a reference to The Art of Fiction by David Lodge. Home again and tired, I fiddle with the commentary before posting this version to the TMA forum—although at this late stage I don’t expect a response. I review three other people’s stories. One is about an immigrant who feels isolated in America; another involves a young woman working in a nuclear bunker; and the third is a biting satire of office life.

I’m too tired to read through my own story so I put it together with the commentary in a document and leave it for tomorrow.

Day Four. The morning sky is black and the house is cold. I’m having a last read-through of my story and commentary. I check the TMA requirements too. The story is worth 80%, the commentary 20%. They should be 2000 and 500 words long respectively, but there is a 10% leeway.

An hour later, and I’m ready to send it off. Well, not ready, but I have to go to work in a few minutes. I spent ages writing and rewriting a particular sentence. The commentary, having been subjected to dozens of cuts and alterations, seems choppy and abrupt. There is one more day until the deadline—I always submit assignments a day early, just in case. Maybe I’ll review it again this evening.

Good luck to everyone on the course!