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.

Paradise

Another one word, 15-minute writing prompt. I actually do know where this one’s going after the abrupt stop that represents the end of the writing time, but I’ve never got around to extracting it from my head!


Stacy Andrews stood in front of the travel agents in the high street, daydreaming. She wasn’t on her lunch break in a miserable grey northern town, having stuffed in a greasy pork pie and two sickly chocolate doughnuts and about to go back to her soul-destroying job for an insurance company. No, she was Stacy Andrews, millionairess – or at least very-comfortably-off-ess – and she was just about to round off her lunchtime, spent mainly over a wonderfully healthy yet tasty salad at that expensive Raw Food place up the road, by booking a three-week trip to a fantastic resort in the Seychelles.

‘One of those places where you live in a little straw hut on a coral reef but there’s a jacuzzi in your bathroom’, she’d confide to her equally wealthy colleagues at the office where she’d go three days a week ‘just to stop me vegetating’ and from which would periodically issue gorgeously produced cookery books of the “cottage garden but with wonderfully styled photography” genre.

She’d go away, have a fabulous time, meet a rich, handsome and interesting man who’d fall instantly in love with her and propose – but she’d say no because she valued her independence so much and when she went home he’d write her intense letters every other day and they’d meet now and then and have passionate yet tender sex in equally exotic locations.

‘Spare some change, love?’ came a voice from beside her, instantly accompanied by a waft of unwashed body.

‘Ugh…er…’ she turned her first response into a kind of cough and rummaged in her handbag. After all, it wasn’t the… she peered at the grimy figure before her with its hand out. Woman? Yes, definitely female, despite the baggy layers of clothes and bobble hat. It wasn’t the woman’s fault she was homeless. Probably.

Stacy had seen that documentary about the homeless – the one proving that only 5% of those living on Britain’s streets had actually chosen in any way to be there. So she always gave money to help them when she could. Or at least when she couldn’t avoid not giving, anyway. It was her own fault for standing still. Usually if you maintained a sufficiently high speed you could be past even a persistent beggar before they got more than a few words into their spiel.

If blog posts were buses

Since I posted the other day, I’ve received several comments to the extent that I should write more. Which, of course, I know. And when I started looking through the notebook I’ve been using for Tim Clare’s Weekly Writing Workout, it turned out that I’ve actually done more of the prompts than I thought.

So my first intention was to post the results, to try to encourage myself to do more. And I’m still going to do that. But it turns out that I never posted the results of the last writing prompt thing I did, which was a prompt a day for a month (no link to this one because it no longer exists!).

These are all 15 minute things, written longhand – and, as always, I’m amazed at the stuff that comes, fully formed, from my head when I just sit down and actually write. Where does it all come from? Years of life experience, I suppose. Although in this case a lot of them turned out rather macabre. I’ve noticed before that the shorter my fiction, the more likely it is that somebody’s about to die messily. Personally I blame reading too many Misty comics when I was a kid.

There are also a few that link up, using recurring characters or settings. And I guess that in itself is a reason for writing more of these short pieces.

Anyway, I’m going to post these as and when I remember, over the next month or so.

Not only an appropriate image, but also, if you click here, a really good explanation of why it happens…

Adjusting to Brexile

My colleague and prolific writer Allison was kind enough this week to call me a fellow blogger, so I thought it was about time I actually, you know, blogged.

It’s not entirely my fault that I haven’t written anything here recently. I’ve totally run out of inspiration for comments on the lunacy that is Brexit, and have taken to only getting my political news from the wonderful Ian Dunt on Twitter. If he hasn’t said something, or knows someone who’s said it, the chances are I don’t want to hear it. After all, I can’t do anything about the whole insane mess, and because both I and my partner are now – thank you Sweden! – safely out of the danger zone, I’m trying hard to see only the comical aspects, of which there are many. Many many many many.

I’ve also been really busy professionally, translating two books, umpteen thousand words of mindfulness meditation voice-overs and vast quantities of technical specifications for major Stockholm infrastructure projects (once again, thank you Sweden!)

One thing I haven’t done much of is writing, despite the fact that I’m meant to be doing a bit every week, with the invaluable Tim Clare. Here’s a link to his free Couchto80K writing course; the speed he talks during the 123 second pitch alone would have convinced me to sign up for this if I wasn’t already (ostensibly) doing the weekly writing workout.

Anyway, to my shame I haven’t done many of these workouts so far, but in a rare spare 10 minutes a couple of weeks back, I scribbled out something not entirely unpleasing that kind of captures my whole Brexit/exile attitude.

Here it is. And I’ll try to post more often in the future (sorry Allison).


It’s Sunday, and she’s sipping Earl Grey tea on a blocky, utilitarian balcony in a blocky, utilitarian town in a blocky, utilitarian country and wondering how she got here… and where she goes next. The balcony is not her own. The country is, now, by a kind of forced adoption.

When she left her own country she never intended not to go back, much in the same way that she never intended not to go home again when she set off to go to university at the age of 18. But she’s discovered over time that the goalposts shift when you aren’t looking. So her parents split up and sold the house and sent her belongings to her university digs, and the country she was born in effectively did the same, suddenly deciding it didn’t want to be European any more. And she – who’d always thought of herself as European first and foremost – was faced with making herself a country of one, renegotiating her treaties, setting up her own defence budget, adopting environmental targets… creating a unique new member state.

So here she is, watching the seagulls fly past and wondering how so many people can live squeezed together into such a small area and whether one day she’ll ever want to become one of them – or whether that decision too will be forced on her by outside circumstances.

And that makes her feel, momentarily, like a victim – which she never wanted to be and dislikes as a role adopted by others. But it is just a role, she reminds herself, and one she can refuse or find a path around – or through, if necessary. She knows she can do that. She’s done it before. And after a while it’s not even all that scary any more.

She picks up her tea cup again and smiles. On the whole, life isn’t too bad at all.


Writing news 22 October 2018 (Part Two): Resist

Sometimes things just fall into your lap. Sometimes you have to struggle to make stuff work.

And sometimes the two combine to give you an opportunity to do something mad and exciting and all-but impossible, something that leaves you feeling exhilarated and alive and glad you did it.

It’s only been just over a fortnight since SF author Christie Yant asked who her Twitter followers recommended for proofreading, and I semi-flippantly answered “Well… me”.

But today, when the Resist anthology is exclusively released as part of the “Get the Vote Out” Humble Bundle and starts raising funds for the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, it’ll in part be because I threw caution – and my fee – to the winds and agreed to proofread 350+ pages in PDF format in an insanely short period of time, even though I knew that I’d also be spending a week in the UK, including a full day at a conference, during that fortnight.

Because sometimes, when the time’s right, when the cause is good – in fact, even when the time is wrong, if the cause is a good one – you have to act.

In today’s world, you may think that your actions can’t possibly achieve anything. You may think “Oh, I can’t contribute. I can’t stop global warming or help prevent human rights abuses, or stop the Saudis killing journalists and getting away with it”.

And maybe your contribution can’t be very big. My contribution to this anthology is a small one. But I made it all the same, and it’s helped a bit, and I’m proud that I did it.*

This week I’m also launching a new website for my business (or will be if I can get it to behave). On it, I explain my philosophy in life, which sounds grand, but it’s quite simple:

“If we all helped other people and made their lives easier, the world would be a much better place for all of us”

It’s that simple. Just do that. If you do nothing else today, this week, this year, just do that. As well as complaining about the state of the world and sending cat gifs to your friends to cheer them up, do something small and positive to make the world a better place.

You can pick up three pieces of plastic every time you visit the beach, or a park.

You can invest in solar energy projects in Africa.

You can contribute to raising funds for an ocean-going plastic recycling factory.

You can do something local and important to you, like teaching elderly people a new language (good for keeping brains active – both theirs and yours), visiting people who live alone, or helping out in an animal sanctuary.

If you’re in the US, you can vote (if you haven’t been removed from the electoral list, that is). And you know which way to vote, don’t you?

And, of course, you can help raise funds for the ACLU.

Because the important thing is simply to resist.

Resist_001

*I’ve got to say too, that seeing emails whizzing into my inbox from people like Christie Yant, Hugh Howey and Gary Whitta has been a blast. I’ve also discovered a truly excellent book designer in the person of Matt Bright, who had the unenviable task of converting my proofreading notes into reality in the finished layout.

How to make friends and influence… dinosaurs?

This a flash piece I wrote for A. Merc Rustad’s wonderful Robot Dinosaurs. They didn’t choose it for publication, but that’s OK. Anything that makes me write, and finish, a piece, is good! Also, this one isn’t strictly about a dinosaur (although I only discovered that as I was writing it…)


 

She’s slumped in the sweltering shade in the garden, sweating and irritated, when she first hears the noise. Of course, that’s not actually strictly true – she was a kid when she first heard it in some corny old film, and there was one on that Bowie track. But this is the first time she’s ever heard the sound in real life.

It doesn’t register to begin with. There are cars driving past in the distance, and she’s just so hot that nothing’s really sinking in.

Then she thinks it might be a notification on her phone, some new app that makes a noise like… And that’s when she sees it. It’s gliding down in the middle of the lawn, about 50 metres away. She knows what it is immediately, even as she’s walking, disbelieving, towards it – a pterodactyl. Smallish, maybe 50 cm from one wingtip to the other. As she gets closer, she can see that it’s definitely artificial, but at the same time kind of… organic? Covered in dark brown stuff that looks like velvet or the short fur on a cat’s ear. It looks up at her from where it’s crouching awkwardly on the parched grass and goes “Squeeeeee?”

She can’t stop herself calling it Terry. It has a little crest on its beak, but not a very obvious one, so she can’t work out if it’s meant to be any specific gender.

She discovers that these days they aren’t called pterodactyls any more, but pterosaurs. And that in fact they aren’t even dinosaurs.

She never finds out where it came from. Nobody seems to be missing a robot dinosaur. Or if they are, they aren’t looking for it very hard.

She goes on a date with Johan, a guy she doesn’t really find attractive, just because his profile mentions that he’s a palaeontologist. They actually have quite a nice time, although there’s no way she’s going to invite him home.

Terry’s a pretty good houseguest. It seems to run on solar power, because it likes to spend a good amount of the day standing about in the sun with its wings partly open like a drying umbrella. The rest of the time it sits on her desk in a cardboard box filled with tissue paper, which it tears up periodically with its pointed beak, dropping the bits onto her desk as if bringing her gifts. It doesn’t ever eat anything, although it occasionally snaps at flies if they’re bothering her, which is endearing but kind of scary because it’s so quick. It catches them quite often, too, dropping the squashed remains on the little heap of paper beside the box. At night it insists on clambering up the stairs with her when she goes to bed, where it sleeps on her discarded clothes.

It smells of cinnamon and gun oil, and now so does she. Several people are complimentary about her new perfume.

Terry’s pretty ungainly on the ground, because its wings don’t really fold up tidily, and it has to walk like a bat, kind of on its elbows. But it can launch itself into the air by doing a surprisingly high leap off all fours, and once there it’s really quite nippy. They play frisbee in the garden, her throwing and Terry snapping the plastic disc out of the air and dropping it at her feet.

As the weather finally gets cooler, she notices that Terry’s moving more slowly, so she brings out the big daylight lamp and the robot pterosaur does its umbrella trick in front of that instead.

After it’s been with her about six months, Terry occasionally starts coming over and pecking at her keyboard, then peering at the screen. She shows it how to type “Terry”, though it doesn’t seem to understand. But a few weeks later she comes downstairs in the morning and discovers that she’s apparently ordered a whole load of electronic components from Kjell & Company, plus some stuff she can’t even identify from a lab equipment supplier. When she confronts Terry with the email confirmations, it gives a tiny pterosaur shrug and settles down in its box.

The deliveries start arriving a few days later. She feels ridiculous trudging up to the village shop in the snow to collect packages ordered by a pterosaur, but she does it anyway, bringing them back and laying them out on the garage floor. Terry shuffles up and down, inspecting the items and turning them over with its beak. She digs out her old laptop and sets that up on the floor too, and watches as the robot pterosaur taps away at the keys, occasionally using a rear claw or a forelimb to move the mouse.

It clearly understands English, but it never communicates with her directly other than with the odd squawk or crooning noise that a cat might make to its human. She wonders if it somehow can’t associate the sounds she makes with the symbols it sees on the screen.

At any rate, after a day or two using a freeware CAD program, it produces a neat diagram showing how all the parts fit together. She’s pretty good with a soldering iron, and she’s used to making models for wargaming, so it kind of makes sense. She prints out the diagram, lays out the tools she thinks she’s going to need, and starts work, with Terry watching closely.

It takes her nearly a month, because some of the organic parts have to be grown in glass beakers. They just look like blobs to her, but sure enough when she lays the blobs in the right place in the structure, they ooze into position like they’ve always been there.

And when she’s finished, Terry squawks in satisfaction and stabs at the Enter key on the laptop, and the second pterosaur – a bit chunkier, a bit more obviously robotic – looks up at her from where it’s crouching awkwardly on the garage floor and goes “Squeeeeee?”