The excitement of writing for a competition…

I enjoy writing for specific events or audiences, as there is a kind of precision and framework to be considered. It’s quite an interesting mental exercise when you have a word limit, or when you have to create something for a specific genre. I like writing newspaper or magazine articles, poems, speeches, plays, all of which mean a writer must consider the use of words and the requirements of an audience really carefully. I’ve written things from song lyrics to pantomimes, and I love the mental challenge of slelecting words and phrases that fit a specific framework. Of course, I enjoy writing novels best: I love the freedom of letting a character take over and run with an adventure. But that’s for another blog post.

Recenty, someone in a creative work-sharing group mentioned that they were enterng a writing competition. In competitions, you’re generally given a few specifics, a title, a word limit, but you have little knowledge about what the judges want, so you have to think outside the box and try to be a bit original. I’ve entered a few competitions and had placings: I’m one of those people who often come second, and that in itself is a source of great happiness. The competition we were discussing demanded no more than five hundred words, based on a theme of Hope, so I wrote something as an exercise, although I have no intention of using the piece for any other purpose than this blog.

Recently, in one of my zoom writing groups, we discussed the importance of strong opening and closing lines, so I decided I’d incorporate this into my piece. In a subsequent class, we were asked to consider the power of the weather on our writing, so I incorporated the weather too.

I decided that, in these lockdown times, it would be easy to write a piece about how much we all hope that the separation and the threat to everyone’s health, mental and physical, ends soon, and that we can emerge from this situation intact and all move forward; that we can somehow use the experiece to grow. So, instead of writing about that as a theme, I thought about choosing a completely different location, a different time, and I moved my story to Canada in the 1930s. I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it’s a metaphor…

This is my piece, below, entitled Hope. I have written exactly 500 words. I hope you enjoy it..

Hope

‘God must be having goose for tea tonight.’

She looked upwards as she walked on, huddled inside the thin coat. Snowflakes fell like fat feathers, large as a baby’s fist, tumbling from somewhere above, filling her eyes, blinding her. She couldn’t see the night sky for the whiteness of it all.

She trudged on. It was fifteen miles to Québec. She would be there by dawn. Her sister would take her in, as long as her husband didn’t mind. She’d be useful.

Her fingers tingled. She’d never owned a pair of gloves. She’d seen kid gloves once as a child; she’d been with her mother outside a store in Québec and an elegant lady had stepped from a car, wearing a fur stole and the softest gloves. She’d never been inside a car: she imagined it was like a house, but smaller and warmer. Her own house had never been warm.

She tramped through the hard-packed snow, cold water seeping through the holes in her boots and she shivered. Her hands flitted to her belly and she thought of the baby there, small as a button. She hoped he or she – it was a girl, she was sure – was warm enough beneath the folds of a thin coat, a thin dress, thin skin. It was for the child she had done it. When the baby was born, she would be better without a father.

Her feet were stamping some kind of rhythm as she lurched onwards, her hair wet and bedraggled, her face so cold her cheeks burned. The wind blasted snow in her face and she was buffeted by the blizzard, but she forced herself forward.

Ice crunched beneath her boots as she set her feet down sturdily, hoping she wouldn’t slip. In the darkness, the snow was luminous, a soft light. Her thoughts fled back to the freshly-fallen snow outside her cabin, banked high on either side, as she had rushed from the house. He had chased after her, shouting, swearing, stinking of sour-mash whisky. Then he had hit her, full in the face, and she had felt her nose pop. She had pushed him; he’d fallen backwards and hit hard ground, his neck cracking like a twig. The falling snow had covered him quickly as she watched, and she’d been glad to see his twisted angry expression disappear. She’d gone inside, wiped the blood from her face, collected her bundle of rags and the money behind the clock, and ran.

Now, her toes were numb and her legs felt like soft sponge. Beneath the coat, her flesh was ice. She stared up into the dropping snow, blinking, letting the wetness of it fill her eyes like tears for a moment, then she slogged forwards. The road in front of her bent to the left and wound on into shadows.

She pushed her head down, lumbered forwards into the whirling blizzard and prayed between chattering teeth, ‘God, save a bit of that roast goose for me.’

I had so much fun with this writing exercise…

I’m always busy with novels, writing them or editing them or thinking of new ideas. But writing can be a fairly isolated profession, so I’m always glad of an opportunity to collaborate with others. The Boldwood writing community is very special; there’s a supportive group of women and men who seem always to be there for each other, ready to celebrate when new books are published, to coax and support when anyone has questions, to advise and to share happy moments and to read each others’ work. I have read some truly mindblowing books by Boldwood authors recently. There are so many talented writers I can’t wait to meet.

I have friends who are writers, performance poets, poets, people in whose company I know I flourish and become a better writer. I used to belong to an excellent group of writers in Devon who are incredibly gifted, and will be friends forever. There’s a local group where I live now which is bursting with so much talent, it’s breathtaking, and because we can’t meet physically now we catch up on line to share our work. I learn so much from these modest but incredibly able writers.

Then, once a week, I join a fascinating zoom group, led by an experienced and innovative author. This group is exciting because, despite the mix of published authors, journalists, bloggers and those with aspirations to write novels, cookery books and children’s stories, it is a supportive and happy group who respond so positively to the challenges we are set. We’ve written fairy stories, poems, different styles of writing inspired by many and various stimuli, and our responses are always so varied.

This week, the group leader asked us each to finish a sentence without thinking too hard: it was ‘Her had shook as she opened the ….’

Most people replied ‘Her hand shook as she opened the…’ ‘letter,’ ‘book,’ box,’ ‘door,’ and so when it came to my turn, I said the first unusual thing I could think of, which was inspired by a thriller written by a Boldwood writer: I said ‘corpse.’ Silly me: we were then asked to go away and write a piece based on the first line we had chosen. I was left with something that would be macabre, sinister or bloody, which I truly thought about writing.

Then an idea came to me. Here is my response, below. I hope you like it….

Her hands were shaking as she opened…

‘Her hands were shaking as she opened, the corpse at the beginning of her first speech was nothing short of indecorous. To summarise, Fannie Barton was the worst Shrew who ever appeared on the London stage.’ David Garrick sighed.

‘The Spectator wrote that?’ Fannie’s petticoats rustled as she flounced forward to gaze over David’s shoulder, staring at the words on the page. ‘You asked me here to show me this? I didn’t corpse – that was maniacal laughter and, as for the hands shaking, Katherina was angry – why wouldn’t she shake with rage?’

 ‘Our living hangs in the sway, Fannie – we depend on reviews, even if we don’t agree with the boorish hacks who write them.’

‘No, it’s worse than that.’ Fannie whirled round. ‘They want a Katherina who pouts and drops her eyelashes, who is submissive and acquiescent from the beginning, so by the end of the play she’s nothing more than a sodden dish clout.’ Her face flushed pink. ‘All they really want to see is a doxy in a low-cut frock, a white bosom, a shapely ankle, and as long as it’s all thrust under their noses, they’ll write about what a good performance it was.’ She stamped her foot. ‘That’s not me.’

David rose from the couch and moved to the window, pushing back velvet drapes, staring at the road below. A coach rattled by, the horses’ hooves clattering on cobbles. It was raining again, the sky drab as ditchwater; the roofs gleamed, the dull metal sheen of a Hogarth etching. David sighed. ‘But tonight, we must go on again, Fannie, your Kate to my Petruchio. And tonight, there will be other critics there, from the Tatler and the Gazette. There will be more reviews…’ His shoulders slumped. ‘And I have invested much money in this Drury Lane venture…’

‘So, what do you suggest?’ Fannie’s hands were on her hips.

‘Audiences want pompous, pretentious theatre and I want change. I want the natural passions that reflect real life – but even the newspapers are entrenched in the past. It’s always style, pretence, feigning, over a substantial believable performance.’ David shook his head sadly.

‘Then let’s challenge them, David – let’s show them something they are not expecting. Let’s give them some real passion.’ Fannie walked over to him, grasping his frilled shirt, pulling him so close the breath wheezed from his lungs.

He was alarmed for a moment. ‘Fannie – I have Eva to consider – my wife would not…’

‘And I have a three-year-old daughter who needs warm clothes and a hot meal…’ Fannie’s eyes blazed. ‘These critics think that women in my profession are no better than harlots, flower sellers. So, let’s give them some real-life desire of the flesh.’

‘But Kate is no common whore, Fannie – and Petruchio is just a likeable rake, a penniless scoundrel who drinks strong ale and…’

‘We can make it much more real.’ Fannie seized David’s shoulders through his shirt. ‘Passion. That is what Kate and Petruchio have for each other. We must show the layers of it, the way it fills the body, fires the blood, makes the brain blaze…’

‘I’m not sure I understand you.’

‘It’s simple. Kate is attracted to Petruchio from the start but she is proud: he must not know of it at any cost. Petruchio is besotted with Kate at first sight, but he is afraid of the depth of his feelings, how it makes him weak. So, the space between them sparks, it is fire, it will ignite the closer they become and, despite distance, the blaze explodes, engulfing them. Although the audience will never be told of this raging desire, this unquenchable thirst, they will sense it from the moment Petruchio and Kate’s eyes lock.’

David nodded. ‘It could work, Fannie. Petruchio and Kate try to deny the natural magnetism between a man and a woman at the beginning of the play, but it surfaces and grows, upon each line they speak: it boils over into everything they do.’ He was silent, thinking. ‘The difficulty is, how can we rehearse the play in order to replicate an incredible passion only dreamed of by so many and achieved by so few?’

Fannie laughed, pulling the pins from her hair so that it tumbled around her shoulders. ‘I only know of one way, David.’ He saw the gleam in her eye. ‘We must discover an intense world of our own, away from wives and children and critics and audiences, a world only the two of us will understand as we explore our characters between soft linen.’

‘As Petruchio and Kate?’

‘As who else?’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘It is how we move our art to the level of perfection.’

‘Of course.’ David watched her as she stood, just beyond his grasp, her eyes dark. His whisper was barely audible. ‘Why, there’s a wench. Come on and kiss me Kate.’

Sit by my side, and let the world slip: we shall ne’er be younger.’ Fannie took a step backwards, stretching out an arm, her palm upwards. She shook her head, turning away, almost smiling as she moved towards the couch, her voice low. ‘And where two raging fires meet together, They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.