Writing exercise #18 – Filling pages

On the dangers of telling someone to write what they know….


I do it dutifully, every night, and in the morning. I fill my pages as I’ve been told.

“It’s very useful. It’ll loosen you up, help you flex your writer’s muscles”, says Ken, my writing tutor, and everyone else in the class always seems to be fine with this. One of them has already had a story published, for God’s sake, that she first wrote during her daily pages. “It only took me an hour to write it. I just couldn’t stop once I’d got into the flow”, she simpered. I hate people like her, Sylvia, with her exotic looks (half Chinese, half Spanish or something), and her cute little pink notebooks with cartoon animals on them and her always perfect hair.

In class, when she announced her publication news (in a magazine I’d even heard of too – she didn’t even have the decency to be published in the Wisconsin Monthly Advertiser or something equally obscure) I’d sighed and looked down at my latest attempt to fill pages – three half sheets from one notebook and a piece of kid’s stationery found marking a recipe for meatballs in a second-hand cookery book, all framed by my equally scruffy hands; chewed nails, torn cuticles, scratched from trying to tame the feral cat that lives in the empty house down the street.

My sigh had been so loud that everyone around the table had turned to look at me and I’d had to explain that I was thinking about something else.

“Yes, remember that too folks; inspiration can strike a true writer anywhere, anytime”, trilled our tutor, and everyone laughed at me. I think it was about then I decided to kill him.

Since then I’ve actually had no problem filling my pages. I bought a tidy notebook with elastic to keep it shut when I’m not plotting his demise. Actually I’ve bought two – the ideas just come thick and fast, just like he always said they would. And I’m struck by plot ideas all the time – on the subway, hanging upside down during my pole dancing class, under water in the swimming pool (injection of air into a vein, strangulation, drowning). So I suppose just because a lot of his trite ideas did finally come true I should let him off. But I’m not going to. “Write what you know”, he says, over and over again. Well I want to write a book about a murderer and I don’t know how my character feels as she kills her victim. So he’ll just have to die for his craft.

Writing exercise #14 – Open skies

Part two of the text I posted on Friday. Maybe the start of something longer?


Teej shouted as her dart was fired away from the building by the catapult. Shouted with that half laugh, half exhilarated terror she always felt when the Gs hit her. That was one hell of a launch though, using actual hand wound springs to send them zipping off into the clear air. Anything to save power, and they needed what they had to charge the darts. She had about two hours’ flying time now, but that had to include getting back to the tower. Landing was somewhat less fun, consisting of aiming at a massive patch of sticky webbing strung between two of the tower’s decorative projections – and hoping that the retrieval crew got to you with their hooks and winches before the sticky wore off and you just slipped down the side of the tower. She wondered whether one day the fear of that landing process would drive her from the sky.

In any case, that was not today. She was skimming along silently, climbing to about 3000 metres, just about to cross low marshland of the coast and head out over the sea. It was a crappy mission, really, the first reconnaissance of that sector since Jared had failed to return from a mission a month ago, but she was still relishing the sky. Because that’s what fliers did. Even if your lover – and, she’d thought, maybe future husband – disappeared while flying. Even if she saw his crumpled dart on a hillside below her, she’d still be a flier. And she knew suddenly that she’d never fear the landing more than she loved this.

The darts were small, one person craft with not much in the way of comforts. But as a flying machine using minimal power in an uncertain world, they were unbeatable. Light and manoeuvrable, almost invisible until you were right on top of them even before they deployed their built-in dazzle mode – and such sheer fun to fly. It was the closest humanity had ever come to being birds, and maybe that was why she always felt so giddy at the start of a mission.

She checked her heading, checked the transponders of the other darts – just six of them, now that Jared had gone. Everyone was in formation, and they were perfectly on course. She checked her heading again, rolled her shoulders and grinned at the blue sky, at the sparkling water and the uneven green bumps of the Scatter Islands running not quite left to right in front of her. She’d done her mourning, and no doubt would mourn some more yet, but just now everything felt perfect. Jared would have understood.

Whatever had happened to him, he’d gone while he was flying, and he’d always said that was how he wanted it to be. So had she, if it came to it.

An hour later, as she fell away from her dart and down, down, away from the blue sky and towards the sea where it crashed against the cliffs of Big Skerry, she wasn’t so sure she still felt the same way.

Writing exercise #12 – Along the canal

A rather self-referential piece this time. By this point in the writing challenge I’d spotted the violent theme and was wondering where it came from.


He walks along the towpath, looking for inspiration. The sky is pale blue with shreds of white cloud, and the almost leafless poplars make it look like a Monet painting – one of those ones of canals that don’t really have a subject and were maybe just painted out of exuberance, the joy of simply being able to capture something.

Just like he can’t. Well, of course that’s not actually true, in fact. He can capture stuff – there’s nothing wrong with his actual style – it’s just that what he writes about is all so gloomy. No matter what he starts writing, it always ends up with at least one and usually more characters suffering a violent death. Which would be fine if he was writing a whodunnit, but he’s not. Years ago someone – Martin Bell, probably – suggested that there should be more reporting of positive news, and he’d always wholeheartedly agreed with that.

He’s long since pruned his social media feeds of any sources of negativity; he doesn’t have a telly; he doesn’t read the newspapers. He only really hears about stuff if someone down the pub is talking about it. And yet his writing oozes death and disease and violence and misery.

Take this canal, for instance. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture the dead bodies floating in it. After all, Morse and his ilk seemed to spend their entire careers fishing corpses out of the water. Or what about if it was frozen and some teenagers were skating on it and one of them went through the ice. Just an accident – or is it? All those rampant hormones running wild. Lovers trysted by canals (suicide, murder, quarrels over abortion). Anglers might fall in by accident (it couldn’t be easy swimming with waders on). The one that didn’t get away.

And then there’s the canal – often deserted and usually running through a dodgy part of town – as the scene of ambush. Or what about the emotions and hidden jealousies in a group of people living moored up near each other on narrowboats? Arson would be a neat way to rid yourself of a troublesome neighbour. And then there are the cyclists; suicidal/murderous loonies using the towpath like a race track. Motorcyclists, too. Or canal bridges with collapsing walls or run into by a car… Even the power lines spanning the water in the distance are potentially lethal.

He sighs and looks at the far off hills. Maybe tomorrow he’ll walk there, try to get some positive vibes. After all, surely hills are less threatening than a canal? Though of course someone could have fiddled with the brakes on your car…

Writing exercise #11 – He knows what he’s doing

This one is the next part of “How I met Mr Wonderful“, which I produced a couple of years ago as part of a different writing challenge and is probably the least ‘me’ and the most fun writing I’ve ever done. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to sustain Stella’s lifestyle for long enough to finish her story, but I’d love to try. And of course, meeting up with Mr Wonderful again is always nice.


He knows what he’s doing. Of course he does. If you ever feel the urge to jump off the Orient Express in the night as it hurtles across France, he’s definitely the guy for the job.

First he drags me back down the length of the train – Mr De Jong apparently being occupied somewhere near the front – allowing me a brief incursion into my cabin to retrieve my handbag. Fortunately I make it a habit never to travel with anything personal in my overnight bag; one too many lost pieces of aeroplane hold luggage cured me of that. So I abandon it and allow myself to be pulled through the rest of the train. We slow each time we encounter a fellow passenger, and Mr Wonderful tries to look less like he’s a caveman in an Alexander McQueen suit and more like a bashful lover taking his sweetheart for a nice walk along the train. Prior to a “North by North West” style night of passion in a railway bunk, presumably.

I keep trying to ask him why exactly he’s so worried about Anders de Jong, but he hushes me with a sound like a pre-whistling kettle, so in the end I give up.

And then we enter the viewing coach, which is fortunately empty, and he puts his hand on the handle to open the last door… and it’s locked. I’m bitterly disappointed. I’d pictured the back of the train being an open platform where you went after dinner to smoke. Or, in this case, to jump off. Instead there was just a normal door, with just a tiny pane of glass in it. Is nothing sacred?

I start looking around for a window to open, which is pretty futile as the whole train is sealed tight so that the nasty plebs we’re rolling past don’t get a whiff of the sweet smell of wealth within.

But as it happens, windows are not required, not with Mr W about. He reaches into his jacket and brings out a weirdly shaped piece of metal, which he proceeds to insert into the hole in the door beneath the handle. Because of course one always carries a guard’s key with one on train journeys.

He grins at me, and my knees do that melting thing again. Then he opens the door, and the tracks are suddenly blurring away from us just a couple of metres distant.

“Come on”, he says, and pulls me through the door. For one horrible moment I think he’s going to jump onto the tracks zipping past at some hideous speed, but actually we squeeze into the oval rubbery bit just beyond the door, which he then shuts again and locks. Leaving us squished together in an area of rather less than a square metre, and with absolutely nowhere to go.

I can see him faintly in the (red) light from the lamps on the back of the train, and he’s grinning again. He moves his mouth down to my ear and speaks loudly enough for me to hear over the noise of the train.

“We’ll have to stay here for a while. At least this way we’re hidden.”

I can feel his warm breath on my neck, and his body is pressed close to mine from head to toe. He smells… well, wonderful. I try to think of something sensible to say but my brain seems to have gone for a coffee break.

“Stella?” he says, putting both hands on my shoulders.

I look at him in the red glow and smile up at him.

“Is that an attaché case full of secrets clamped awkwardly between your legs, or are you just happy to see me?” I ask.

He smirks, a dimple coming and going in his chin. “Both”, he says. And kisses me.

Creativity all over it

I initially thought this was a really stupid prompt, but I had such fun writing this one. I’m pretty sure this took a bit more than 15 minutes, but not much.

Warning: Not for readers of a sensitive disposition.


The grubby black door opened suddenly as she was raising her hand to knock for the second time, revealing a bleached blonde woman with a lived-in face and too much makeup wearing a black-and-white spotted top and a short black skirt. Her stockings – the suspenders were visible below her skirt – were both laddered and her shoes had seen better days.

“Yeah?” she asked around a wad of gum.

“Er, I’m…” the girl remembered her new stage name and changed what she was about to say at the last moment. “I’m Delilah”.

The other woman snorted. “Delilah, is it? Well I suppose it’s a while since we had one of those. You’re the one Mr G told me about, are you?” She had a very faint accent. Polish, maybe?

“Yes, he told me to come and ask for…”

“Angel”, said the other woman, finally standing back from the doorway and gesturing her in. Stairs plunged down immediately inside the door, and as they clattered down them Angel said, “Yes, I know, it’s a stupid name t… A stupid name. But when I came here first nobody could say my name, so they called me Angel.”

They reached the bottom of the stairs and walked along a dingy corridor. Angel opened a door on the left, held it open but didn’t go in. “The club”, she said. “You auditioned there, yes?”

“Yes.”

“OK.” She shut the door. “So that’s where you go in if you’re not on stage, and you get changed here.” She opened a door on the right and flipped a switch just inside, revealing a large space reminiscent of a gym changing room, with benches to sit on and lockers against the walls.

“Bring nothing you don’t mind if you lose”, Angel said as she turned off the light and pulled the door shut. “The lockers don’t lock and some of the girls will steal anything they like the look of.”

She continued along the corridor, nodded to another door marked “STAGE” in large red letters, and finally opened the door at the end of the corridor.

“And here’s the staff room. Would you like a cuppa?” The last word sounded odd in her accented English.

“Er, yeah, thanks. Black, two sugars.”

Angel went over to the kettle in the corner and started slamming mugs and spoons about.

Delilah entered the room – quite big but low ceilinged – and shut the door carefully behind her. The air was almost stiflingly hot and smelled of a badly mixed cocktail of perfumes. Tatty sofas and armchairs were complemented by coffee-ring-stained tables. Delilah perched on the edge of one of the armchairs and wondered whether she was really this desperate. Then she remembered her debts and decided she was.

On the coffee table in front of her was a large, thin book covered in paper with a strangely intricate pattern. It looked like one of those cartoons where you had to spot one character amongst hundreds of people all enjoying a day out at the zoo or throwing snowballs or something.

She turned it slightly with one finger, trying to make out the motif. Finally she got it. Written all over it in letters of different colours and sizes was the word ‘Creativity’.

Angel saw her looking. “My grandmother’s idea”, she said. “When I was a little girl, in Yugoslavia – that’s what we called it then – she always told me, ‘Slavica’, she’d say, ‘you must always work at your creativity. Never forget that life is more than just work.’”

“Oh, that’s sweet”, said Delilah. “And what do you create? Can… Can I see?”

“Of course you can. It’s my sex manual.”

Delilah dropped the book as if it had burned her. Angel threw back her head and shrieked with laughter.

“No, it’s very tasteful, really.” She leaned over the table and flipped the book open.

“See? This is…” she squinted at the diagram – which Delilah had to admit was indeed beautifully drawn.

“This is double penetration”, said Angel. “See? With instructions as well. I decided to do it like a kind of recipe book, you know, take two men, add plenty of lube, preparation time 10 minutes, like that.” Delilah looked more closely at the exquisitely calligraphied text and winced.

“A bit too hardcore for you, is it?” asked Angel not unsympathetically.

“No, it’s not that”, said Delilah. “It’s just that there’s meant to be two Ls in ‘bollocks’.”

Writing exercise #9 – The Castle

She walked slowly up the drive in the quiet morning mist, the gravel crunching beneath her boot soles; loud no matter how much care she took in placing her foot down. Her breath was shallow and too hurried. She stopped and forced herself to relax, automatically doing the movements she’d practiced hundreds of times. Shoulders down and back, jaw and fists unclenched, feet relaxed, deep breath in through the nose… inhale… exhale…

She felt exposed and a little ridiculous standing here on the gravel, surrounded by beautifully kept gardens and exotic trees. She knew she was probably being watched, but she maintained her stillness anyway.

“Never be afraid to stop and think”, Master Shen had said. “Thinking again rarely got anyone killed. Rash actions often do.”

She didn’t think she was being rash here. All the same, she felt the need to hesitate, to pause her movement as though her trajectory at her original speed had been somehow wrong. She tried, without moving her head – or even her eyes – to decide where the watcher was located. Perhaps more than one. She knew they were seeing a skinny figure in a long, loose black coat, unbelted, over loose black trousers and boots. A broad-brimmed black hat above her white face and long brown hair. Hands held loosely by her sides, waiting. A crow, perhaps, from a distance, or a magpie for that flash of white. Or a woodpecker, she thought wryly, moving one hand to unbutton her coat so the red fabric of her jacket was visible.

Fully revealed, she continued moving towards the building, now stalking arrogantly as if she had been in the grounds of this castle many times before. As if she owned the part ruined, part expensively renovated construction before her.

She passed an ornamental fountain, its waters falling quietly into a large green-tinged marble basin. And then she was in front of the huge doors – no fortress portal this, but impressive nonetheless, with huge black studs in the paler wood. There was a massive black ring set into the centre of each door, but before she could even begin to reach out for one of them, the doors opened inwards, revealing a tall, thin, grey-haired man wearing clothing not entirely unlike hers, in colour at least.

“I’m expected”, she said, proffering the stiff white card of the invitation.

“You are indeed miss”, he said with something approaching a bow. “Welcome to the Castle.”

Writing exercise #6 – Designing

She looked again at the brightly coloured objects in front of her on the desk. Some kind of aeroplane with excitingly swept-back wings, cockpit and long-since lost pilot – she vaguely remembered a small blue figure with tentacles  – and a chunky-wheeled tractor.

She sighed and lowered her head slowly to the desk, shoving her keyboard away with her forehead.

The problem with design briefs, she’d always found, was that they’d seem perfectly clear when the client explained them to her, but as soon as she sat down at her desk and tried to bring them to life she seemed to lose every bit of inspiration she’d ever had. And this was the most demanding client she’d ever worked for.

Still, she’d always managed to come up with something sooner or later, and her clients kept coming back. So she assumed she must be doing something right.

Which was just as well, because there was an enormous amount riding on this job. Far too much, really. Was this a challenge too far?

Then she remembered what her husband Ian had said to her when she’d once tried to explain this to him. “Inspiration can only get you so far, Moll. After that it’s training and years of experience and sheer bloody determination that gets you through it. It’s not the time you actually spend on the work that your clients are paying you for. It’s all those years learning how to put in that time and produce something they’ll love.”

She sat up and smiled to herself. Ian had always known what to say. Exactly the right words. Her eyes went back to the toys. Yes, the stakes were definitely worth the effort.

She drew a piece of paper towards her. This job had to be absolutely secret. She wasn’t going to risk committing anything to digital media for prying eyes to find. She’d do this the old-fashioned way.

It was the kids’ toys that had given her the idea from the start. No matter how much she tidied up there were always hard bits of plastic littering the house, ready to trip or stab the unwary.

Her mother-in-law, Elaine, had badly sprained her ankle at one point following a run in with an errant Moshi Monster truck. And of course Elaine had then repeatedly pointed out how dangerous it was to let the kids leave their toys about. Not that she ever lifted a hand to help on her infrequent visits. She’d rather sit in the kitchen being snide about Molly and indulgent with Ian.

And that was another thing that was going to change if she got this right.

Quickly and with confident strokes she began to draw the object she needed.

The blade-like wings, supported by the solid bulk of the tractor – that was what she was trying to replicate. They needed to be a perfect match for the real objects, so that afterwards she could replace them with the real toys, discard the weaponised version – she hadn’t quite worked how yet, but she would – and then call the police.

“It’s my husband”, she’d say. “He’s… he fell, slipped on the stairs, on the kids’ toys. Please come quickly. I think…” she’d sob, “I think he’s dead.”

And even that bitch Elaine would back her up. And Ian – her lying, cheating bastard of a husband – wouldn’t be able to walk out on them as she now knew he was planning to.

She’d get to keep the house, and the kids… and that lovely big life insurance policy.

And all she had to do was create the perfect accident. Now that really was a Grand Design.