Wednesday, 18 November 2009

NaNo mid-month report

NaNoWriMo has been going well - I passed the 50K threshold last week, on 11th November, and 75K yesterday. I've gone down with a bad cold, which I am blaming for the deathless prose with which I ended a marathon typing session on Sunday night: "It was very involving and she felt very involved." You read it here first. In fact, you won't read it anywhere else as I fixed it the next morning.

My story is much more tightly plotted than last year's, and being set in contemporary Britain there is less scope for vague hand-waving about society, technology, or other potential setting problems. I have been pleased to discover that my characters can still turn around and surprise me by wandering off where I least expect it, meeting new people, and having ideas of their own.

One of the people I have persuaded to sign up is going great guns and appears to be enjoying the experience, finding it freeing and fun. It has been awesome, I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in exploring their creativity or freeing up their writing.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Nearly NaNo

NaNoWriMo starts at midnight tomorrow. I'm ready (extra stocks of tea laid on, plot points, character profiles, imagery and random incidents to sprinkle in as necessary) and excited!

I'm also working on a small panel painting, a Madonna and Child, where I've reinterpreted the traditional imagery by having a newborn baby rather than the typical toddler. Drying times being what they are(n't) at this time of year, I'm getting an hour or so done and then having to wait a day or two. Given that I want to reproduce this as a Christmas card, and the craft fair season is almost upon us, I wish it would hurry up. Having thousands of words a day to write should distract me from watching paint dry, anyway.

Monday, 26 October 2009

art project

Ingredients: take one eighteenth century church, some volunteers who have not painted before, fifty+ square metres of canvas, and a lot of paint.

Marinate over a couple of weekends in church halls and unused gallery areas, gradually adding layers of primer and then paint.

Sew on straps and attach to balcony railings.

Light candles (after applying flame retardant).

Why? It's for a new informal worship evening in a very traditional church - we wanted the place to look very different for the night.

Novel finished

Last week I finished the novel I have been working on here and there since March 2008, taking several months off at a time to take fiction courses and do other things. This is a first draft, and finally weighed in at 164K words, so clearly a lot more than it's likely to be if it's ever tidied up and re-drafted. (It is only a third of the length of War and Peace, but then War and Peace is better written.)

It was a bit of a surprise - I wrote the ending of the main plot, knowing I had a couple of sub-plots to tie up, but then went back and finished those on the same day as I suddenly knew what I wanted to do. I've mostly celebrated by telling people IRL.

A bit of an anticlimax followed - I took a few days off writing, partly because a massive art project was coming to completion too, then carried on with my research for NaNo. I am now ready for the NaNo writing to start, but in a way apprehensive - it feels like so much more is at stake now that I have finished two novels and been taught The Official Proper Way to Write, and what if I fall on my face? Reminding myself it's supposed to be fun sometimes works for this one.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

life drawing - longer poses

Some longer poses from the same workshop.
These all lasted between 30 and 40 minutes. I can't remember which are which now, possibly because this timespan feels pretty similar when you are drawing.

Typically a model works along one wall of a room and the artists set up their equipment in a semi-circle facing them.

This workshop gets fairly full and there are two rows: people on chairs with small sketchbooks in front and people standing up at easels behind them.

I usually stand - you see more, and it prevents my work getting too tiny and precious.

This workshop runs in four main sessions over a weekend day, with a set of short poses or a couple of longer ones in each session, with tea-breaks or lunch in between.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Life drawings - quick poses

I've been better at attending life drawing workshops recently, after months of very sporadic drawing. I find it makes a big difference if I keep in practice. I am typically a fairly fast drawer, which is useful for big classes, or spotting something interesting on the move.

I thought I might explain what happens at a life class/workshop/session for those who have not tried them, also what the point is.

I go to a workshop which runs monthly in my city. There is no teaching, which is fine for me as I have been drawing on and off for years. Total newcomers would probably find a class more useful, although this particular space does its best to accommodate beginners and the other participants give them tips.

This series of sketches are from the warm-up session first thing in the morning.
Most classes or workshops will start with a few short poses, each one anything from five to ten minutes. This is both to help the model to warm up and get flexible, and to help the artists get used to drawing.

You'd typically draw these with charcoal or some other medium which flows easily and isn't too "tight". You don't bother rubbing out your mistakes, or measuring anything - there isn't time.

Models typically do keep still for all that time - up to 45 minutes at a time for long poses. For a painting class, they might be keeping the same pose for many hours with a series of short breaks in between. I would be useless at that! Many models are also dancers or actors, or do yoga or martial arts, so they are well aware of their bodies and what they can and can't do.

The question some of my US relatives ask is, "Why naked people?"
Historically narrative paintings were the most esteemed, so anyone who was anyone as a painter needed to be able to create convincing people. It's easier to understand the structure of a person without clothes on top, especially at first. People are also really hard to draw or paint: a tree with a branch slightly wrong often looks OK, a person with an arm drawn out of scale looks very obviously incorrect. Once you get over the frustration of looking down at your paper to find yet another Frankenstein's monster, you learn quickly from your mistakes.

Today many artists, even people who never paint figures, or are purely abstract artists, still value what they learn from this discipline.

Preparing for NaNoWriMo 09 - drawings

(If you don't know what this NaNo thing is, and you want to, click on the strange machine in the sidebar.)

I'm getting ready for November. Since I have been drawing more recently, as well as writing, I have some sketches towards my "book cover" - NaNo allows participants to upload information about their proposed fiction, including an image.

My story is going to involve someone who already grows fruit and vegetables getting back into painting and drawing despite not having done any for years, so as part of the cover image, I will be using an apple pie and drawing of apples.

The apples are James Grieves and came from a friend's orchard. They are a delicious apple variety which can be eaten raw or cooked, but they are not available in supermarkets as they bruise too easily during transport.

The drawing is approx A2 size in conte crayon. They are also an interesting apple to draw as their skin varies from very plain yellow-green to highly coloured with red and orange blushes and stripes.

The full cover image has a working title - it's a satire on the happily-ever-after Aga (TM) saga, hence the general theme of "That which does not kill you can really scratch the enamel on your Aga." The image is one more hook on which to hang your preparatory ideas, alongside plot plans, character sketches (words or pictures) and other design material.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Writing fiction again

I came across a batch of writing I'd abandoned months ago - the first piece I started writing last year, which was about two-thirds novel length when I put it aside to do NaNoWriMo and the OU writing course. I was thinking I really ought to get around to continuing, some time, especially as I hadn't written much else since the OU course finished in May. That night, I got a set of ideas for NaNo '09 (whilst I was trying to get some sleep before it got light outside again, naturally..) so the next day I started a set of notes for those and then picked up the first novel again.

It's part of my series on a post-ecological collapse dystopia. This story takes place many hundred years in the future, and a couple of hundred years after the civil war that formed my NaNo '08 novel. My plan at the moment is to write all these pieces, probably a trilogy but maybe four of them, in first draft, and then edit the first one. Which is really either the second one, because I started it second, or the third, because I only have ten thousand words for it so far and it will be finished third.

As part of the OU course, I had to write a very short item in a factual style, and then again from the point of view of one of the protagonists. The incident I made up was a fatal car crash. My NaNo idea is to take this as a starting point of a novel narrated by the man who was at home when his wife died in the car. One of its themes will be the reality of country living versus the Sunday supplements or the Aga saga romantic novel treatment. I grew up in the country myself, and have a very jaded view of it because of some major incidents (think Cold Comfort Farm but not played for laughs).

I now have a mixture of plot outline, character notes and so on for NaNo, which is plenty for this time of year, especially considering that this time last year I hadn't even heard of NaNo. I am designing a book cover image - just for fun, as an exercise in imagery, and because they can be uploaded to your book notes in your NaNo profile. A friend gave me some home-grown apples, which I needed for an image - the narrator will be making watercolour sketches of them in a notebook, so I was going to do that myself. She very kindly left some of the leaves and twigs on. I also made an apple pie with some of the extra ones, being a bit busy today with conte pastel drawings of sunflowers and plums to do the apples as well.

Friday, 3 July 2009

... and then there was this tidal wave of web design

Things got very busy in the last couple of weeks: new web clients thinking of different things they wanted, and a rush of ideas on my part too. I have been getting random ideas at all hours of the day and night, keeping a pen and paper by the bed so I can write stuff down and then get to sleep afterwards, and having a blast drawing up designs.

I'm trying to bear in mind the spider diagram I drew a month ago: keep asking which things fit in the plan for the next few months and which don't, and don't go off on tangents doing those, or adding in even more stuff. There have been a few bits of fun artmaking in the middle of all the graphics, though, and that is part of the plan.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Group show

I put two drawings in a group show a week ago. They were marked "Not for sale" as I was pressured gently to enter this thing on the spur of the moment and had no idea of pricing, plus I would like to build them up into a series over the next few months and create cards from them.

Interesting: met some really lovely people, both exhibitors and viewers. Some people have strange ideas of pricing: either in the "that must barely cover the materials" and the "what planet are they on?" camps. It's fun helping to decide how to hang a show. It's useful to know how to fill in nail marks on the wall later (fingertip dab of paint, no big brushstrokes or that makes them show up even worse). And so on...

Maybe next time I'll feel I have enough inventory to let something go if someone wants it.

Rushing about and scary spiders

I've been busy over the last few weeks with loads of things, or at least it has felt that way. One of my web designs is coming along in fits and starts as the content writer and I come up with new ideas.

I saw my spiritual director last week and she suggested I make a "spider web diagram" to get a snapshot of what is going on at the moment. The deal is, you put your name in the middle, and radiating lines going out to each role of your life, or project. Then these get further lines to break down into more detail.

I had an A3 piece of paper full of tiny black (spidery!) writing when I did this. Seeing that there was indeed a huge amount of stuff going on has helped me to decide not to take on too many other things, in other words it's a tool towards saying that really difficult short word beginning with "N". I am thinking of using this image as the background on my phone to remind me when I am about to make appointments that will stress me out.

Thursday, 28 May 2009


I went to see this show yesterday: Visionaries at Wallspace

It's well worth seeing: they have a Stanley Spencer lithograph from a tonal study of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane; a large oil by Philip Howson, "Legion", which has remarkably robust and active participants and escaping demons; an icon-influenced piece called "Downland Discourse" from Noel White, a huge watercolour/gouache(?) called "Dark Madonna" painted by Norman Adams on losing his mother...

It was inspiring to see so many active (or recent) artists working in the general area of spiritual or religious subject matter - "responses to", rather than straight depiction, in many cases. I am just beginning to find out how many people DO work on these subjects or have some kind of spiritual influence - partly by finding the Airbrushed from Art History series which Jonathan Evens of "Between" is writing, well worth a look:

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Life drawing gathering

Yesterday's life drawing did go ahead, after various permutations of models (or not), venue (or not) and time changes. I had one of the best drawing experiences of my life, and took along a friend who hadn't done life drawing in years and raved about how good it was.

We met in an empty house (with permission!) so there was about as much space as possible in Victorian terraced house rooms.

The afternoon was bright but overcast. We had been working in the front bedroom of the house, but suddenly the light went dim in there, so we adjourned to the back of the house, which faced west. There was still some amazing light there and we ended up doing some very contemplative poses for the last session.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Art time

I'm currently hoping for a life drawing session tomorrow - emails have been flying around all day, with varying venues and models and just general chaos - at the moment I'd estimate about a 70% chance that something will happen somewhere.

I've primed a couple of canvases this week: one 40*40 square and one 120*60. The larger of the two is going to be based on a hazy landscape seen from the top of Masada when I went on pilgrimage two years ago. Today I started painting on the small one. This is going to show an image I saw in a guided meditation at the Art and Spirituality Network last year. It's about chalices and green shoots in a stone church, with a lot of pottery shards whirling around. I'm hoping for an eerie light and a strange sense of the surreal and the real, with the little pieces of pot almost suspended in the air. So far I just have some raw umber under-drawing...

One of my friends has just returned from a prolonged period of travel and asked if I was preparing for a show. (!) I think I'll think a bit smaller than that for the time being, being relatively out of practice and having a lot of other stuff to do.

I'm working on some excruciatingly personal writing for a role I'm looking into, hence the retreat into very matter-of-fact details of what I am painting - stand by for a list of the colours on my palette this week....

.. not quite.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Creating Symbols

Last autumn, I created a set of clay pieces at a weekend workshop. They are hand-sized, intended to be held like hand crosses, rosaries, or other items for use when praying or meditating.

I needed to move them off my main desk to make room for a graphics tablet, so ended up taking a few pictures.

There is a range of Christian symbols in there, obvious ones like crosses and an alpha and omega, some Trinity symbols I made up (I like trefoil-based Trinity symbols, and an adaptation of Escher's impossible triangle) , a Chi-Rho, and a few others. A couple of them have step joints for stacking so the pieces can be played with on a desk. Another pair have plugs carved out of them and re-inserted, a reference to Joseph Beuys' End of the Twentieth Century piece ( version at Tate ) .

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Let's paint tractors?

Yesterday I went to the Rodchenko and Popova exhibition at the Tate Modern. I thought it would be a constructive use of my time. I felt Popova's architectonic constructions worked best when they were simple, and similarly my favourite paintings by Rodchenko were the very stripped down graphics on black grounds, also his "Black on Black," which was a beautifully balanced pair of segments in glazed black on matte black. As the Constructivist movement and the Russian Revolution continued, the works seemed to become over-complicated and over-derivative, and visibly less confident.

Finally they set up a show called "5*5=25" - the first part showcasing what were to be their very last paintings, and the second part their new advertising graphics, which are now iconic (odd word, but anyway...) red and black and strident and active summing up of the era. Those are now so familiar that they are hard to see as if for the first time. There's this poignancy to all those shattered hopes and new beginnings that ended up on a frozen dead end. Already in the early twenties the new Soviet powers are messing around with private enterprise, having suffered a terrible famine.

Within a few years, the constructivists stop painting, turning to mass-produced items to make their images available as widely as possible. Rodchenko says in 1927, "When I look at the number of paintings I have painted, I sometimes wonder what I shall do with them. It would be a shame to burn them, there are over ten years of work in them. But they are as useless as a church (my emphasis). They serve no purpose whatsoever."

Other painters came along, or rather were promoted by the Stalinists. So we ended up with more paintings again, but this time socialist realism, with tender little scenes like Uncle Joe and the flowers.

This sort of thing, and its Nazi German cousins, is undoubtedly one reason why we don't have a category of Narrative History Painting with appropriate capitalisation today. One of my visitors last week mentioned this: he feels there would be a place for paintings of great events, such as a Martin Luther King speech.

I couldn't find anything along those lines. I did turn up a few portraits of MLK, such as this sensitive one from "The Painting Activist," an online gallery I'll be visiting again. No grand-scale oils of him in action, unsurprisingly, just portraits.

Narrative paintings might give a viewer a more emotional and subjective way in than the flatness and apparent objectivity of a still photo or news footage. Or maybe we cannot respond to such things in the same way today, even if we take into account that a painting is not "what really happened" and neither, on another level, is a photo.

Even with the Art and Renewal Center, their "living masters" seem mostly to be painting single individuals in fancy dress. I have some sympathy with the idea of making sure traditional painting techniques do not die, and making compendia of artists and teachers working with them available on the web, but I don't want to throw out the more thought-provoking "modern art". (And I find the ARC's adulation of Bouguereau excessive.)

Komar and Melamid did parody the grandiose Stalinist style, this one from the 1980s taking Lenin's famous question, "What is to be done?"

Since I don't share the same view of Rodchenko's simile "as useless as a church" I am going to have to consider what kind of painting I might want to do in future. I have made a small amount of painting affected by religious experiences, thoughts, and visits to locations, most recently a series responding to a trip to the Holy Land, but I don't paint religious narrative scenes or traditional icons (I know officially icons are "written" not painted, I'm not going there). I am not sure what it would mean to do so, how one would rescue it from descending into total kitsch, ironically or otherwise. I tend to focus on small details when I am being realist and representational, which is most of the time.

Chris Woods' Stations of the Cross (the soldiers are shown here, borrowed from a post on 3 Minute Theologian's blog ) work for me. I find the modern dress of the bystanders and protagonists and the oddly bright lighting and serene staging "make me think" - and view the story afresh somehow.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Writing inventory

Yesterday I received a preliminary notification of my grade from the OU writing course, subject to possible moderation later. I passed! That and the end of the Great Greek Slog prompted me to check out all the various bytes lurking in different directories on my desktop and laptop. It turns out I have one complete novel first draft, one two-thirds completed, and another with 8000 words written. These are supposed to form a trilogy and the least complete one is chronologically first. I also have three other items of several thousand words each, none of which have a complete outline, nor have they declared to me whether they are going to be short stories or novels - like a lot of my writing, they started life as single ideas or even images and I have expanded them a bit but not given them much structure as yet.

My short story for the OU has the potential to be a novel when it grows up, too, according to the tutor. There are also a ton of little ideas from my courses, and a few from conversations with my writer guest last week. I am not sure which I shall work on next - but I think it might be an idea to pick ONE and structure it a bit, towards the goal of actually finishing something for once.

Having said that, I was writing another piece for the first novel of the trilogy in a cafe today. I haven't touched that story in months, but this place was somewhere my main character would go so I started describing it and took it from there. I went to church today without my Greek New Testament (I am taking a few days off from that) and had an afternoon of cafe-writing and gallery-hopping instead of going to the library with a ton of textbooks, which had been my usual Wednesday afternoon practice for a couple of months.

Art outside

I took my guests to several parks and art galleries while they were here.
We found irises at the Horniman Museum's botanical gardens, which I drew with conte.

There were also some poppies in bud, and I had never noticed their texture before: spiky but also soft. I drew these in pencil, so I'm uploading a photo for clarity. I can see someone making a huge walk-through installation of something like this (not me, I don't have the time).

Another day we went to Dulwich Common and saw the rhododendrons, among other things.

At Dulwich Picture Gallery, as well as a good exhibition of Sickert's Nocturnes in Venice, there was a coffee mug in the shop with the caption, "When I grow up I want to be an artist," which reminded me of the joke punchline, "Well, you can't do both!"

Monday, 11 May 2009

Past Tense

I've just come home from my Greek exam, thinking I did the best I possibly could. 

A more balanced life to follow... (last week I had people staying, and the last few weeks I was gradually going round and round the set texts for the exam, a little faster and more surely each time, and probably going round the bend too). 

Saturday, 2 May 2009

How do you say, "AARGH" in Greek?

The final exam for my Greek course is in ten days. Learning it has been a blast, but I haven't taken an exam for 12 years (last time I did a Spanish A-level, also as an adult - there's a long personal story behind that). I get nervous when taking exams. Really nervous. 

So I have been revising like mad the last few weeks.

Once in a while I catch myself looking forward to getting this over with so that I can go back to learning more Greek rather than revising the set text for the exam. Clearly, I have got it bad. 

Friday, 1 May 2009

Backed up with paperwork (the writing course finishes)

Late last night I submitted my second and final assignment for the OU course. This was a 1500-word story and an accompanying explanation - we were supposed to explain why we chose the narration method we did, ditto the tenses used, the place where we began, etc. For the story we had a list of words to pick from as inspiration, ranging from the more abstract to concrete stuff like "hair" or "prison". I used "abandonment" and "music" for my jumping-off points, writing a story about a young woman who was abandoned as a baby and then adopted into a family which was surprised by her musical talent. 

I found writing the explanatory text somewhat clunky. I knew exactly how I wanted to write my piece, so although I dutifully tried out a few alternatives in the way of tense and narration, this exercise pointed up how inferior they were. 

I was reminded of an art talk I attended a couple of months ago. The speaker was talking of her own very intuitive way of working, and one of the many fine arts undergraduates in the audience bemoaned the fact that her college insisted on tons of supporting documentation for any piece. It was not enough to plan and execute a painting/sculpture/installation, nor just to log what you did and keep early sketches, you also had to have a cogent game plan for how you had planned your work and what you hoped to achieve, and had to write this up formally. 

OK, to some extent, this is going to stop someone sitting in front of a tableau of roses/ elephant dung and just doing the same-old same-old term after term, but on the other hand, too much bureaucracy and paperwork seems to be deadening pretty much every area of life. The visual arts are likely to be full of people who communicate better with imagery than words, all of whom are required to submit long written reports. I think Edward Hopper had something to say about this, "If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint." 

If we are hearing complaints from so many areas of life about paperwork - as well as the ever-present statements of teachers, I have heard priests complain about management jargon working its way into the church, and I have experienced wildly excessive performance review procedures at a lot of large companies - probably something is up. Some areas cannot be measured purely on obviously quantifiable criteria, and when we try to use something measurable as a shorthand people will soon start to game the system. (NHS waiting times, anyone?) Then we react by changing the measure, probably by adding new stuff and increasing the admin burden, rather than replacement. Finally we wonder why our artists, scientists, technologists and engineers don't seem as "creative" as they used to be, and our public sector projects have massive overspends and overruns in spite of all the measurements taken. 

"Creative" vs "innovative" is a whole other can of worms - people attempting to excuse bad behaviour by explaining the person is "creative", for one thing. I am wondering, though, if there is really a type of person who simply cannot fit into corporate bureaucracies, and if such people aren't vital (in both senses). I read an interesting book last summer on Managing Creative People set in the ad industry, but with some useful things to say for other areas.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

cool new font?

This graphic designer in Victoria, Australia, has spent months searching for characters on Google maps - in this sense

This beats trying to catch a picture of your neighbour coming out of a sex shop in the street view  version. The landscape is very different to anything I'm used to, and the topography from the air seems to lend itself to finding letters in the midst of barren plains. Devon, where I grew up, would probably look like a 3-D brain scan - lots of rounded hillocks and intricate winding valleys? In Victoria, however, the openness seems to inspire people to create F-shaped windbreaks with tall trees, and there are quite a few airstrips, handy for Xs and As. Oh, and the artist's called Rhett. What's not to like?

I'm notorious amongst a set of my friends for once refusing to eat in a restaurant that used the Jokerman font for its menu. My reasoning: anywhere going for such a cliche to advertise their "Mexican" food was probably going to be opening up tins of salsa and refried beans out in the kitchen, if the same level of thought went into the food.

Friday, 24 April 2009

marketing fail

Until this afternoon I had never seen a Wesley Owen bookstore. I'd had lunch with a friend in a restaurant just round the corner from one, so we went in for a look round. I don't know if it was because I'd been warned I might find the stock a little too twee/fluffy/cringemaking/fundamentalist for my taste, but the first shelf label that caught my eye as I let go of the front door was "Dated Bible Study Guides". 

Yeah, I know they meant guides to be used for this season, or the next quarter.

We also discovered a shelf labelled "White Bibles". Kind of reminded me of British Rail's "blue days" in one of their arcane ticketing classifications back when I was an undergrad (and had to listen to other undergrads in more trendy subjects like philosophy saying things like, "Kantian category error, surely?"). 

This may be my first ever trip to a bookstore where I didn't buy anything.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

new draft and the fragility of the writing impulse

OK, that maybe came out a bit more pretentious than I meant... today I managed to redraft my final assignment for the OU, due in next week. That was my first bit of writing in a couple of weeks. Writing seems to happen in blocks for me: a fertile time, then a period where I don't consciously think of myself as "blocked" but do other things. In some of the fertile times I can write thousands of words every day for weeks on end, even if I have other things like A Job to do. Then it can stop. And stay stopped.

Painting, on the other hand, is very much a struggle against almost always feeling blocked and unworthy and rubbish and too tired and ... yet at the moment I am successfully making myself draw every week or so, which sounds like nothing but is a big improvement on much of the time I was working for Big Corporation Plc.

This last period of not-writing coincided with the assignments not being that inspiring to me, and with a surge of revision for Greek.

Monday, 20 April 2009

writing hiatus

I haven't managed to engage much with the final block of the OU course. Several reasons:

  • lots of the exercises seem to be about writing and re-writing, and re-writing, the beginning of the piece required for the final assignment - I have this aversion to hacking away at it for weeks on end, wanting to keep it fresh.
  • I'm busy with other stuff, most notably revising for the Greek exam - and some of the newer tenses and participles (Greek has a LOT of these!) are beginning to look familiar
  • it's a bit quiet on the online forum - there's an obvious solution to that involving ME posting more stuff: pieces of my own, responding to feedback requests, etc.

I am starting to notice more about novel construction when I am reading, though. Then again, maybe that is making me feel less confident about ever being as good as the average novelist.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

More church drawing

I went back to the church this week to take pictures for its website and do some more drawing. There is a lot of ornate carving in this church, and I am working on a set of pencil drawings of the finials to the choir stalls: saints, angels and evangelists all feature. I am getting to know the styles of one or two of the carvers: they carve feathers in noticeably different ways. Even if I sang in the choir, I would probably never know that, as I would be unlikely to look at other people's armrests even during the breaks in the music.

This drawing is of the lectern: not an unusual concept, an eagle holding up the book support. I think eagle == one of the four symbols for the Evangelists, in this case John, which in turn come from the book of Revelation - yes, here it is: Rev 4:7

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Reading for comprehension

-- a ubiquitous insult on the web if someone thinks their crystal clear point is being misinterpreted by an opponent, which reminds me that I tend to read ultra-fast for "story" rather than to slow down and savour prose, or figure out how a writer is achieving their effects, including making me want to find out what happens. These days, I am reading a lot less fiction, and writing a lot more. I think what I need to do next is to spend more time figuring out these effects and constructions so that I can learn from them.

I took about ten days off writing - completely: OU activities and journals and everything prose-related - after handing in the first assignment. I've just re-started, and raced through a couple of weeks' worth of activities in a few days. The course so far: a little disappointing in its interactive component, in that very few of the people on the course list seem to participate at all in the online discussions (which are a bulletin board format, so can be accessed at any time).

I've learned a fair bit already and some of the suggestions trigger ideas immediately, others not so. I am lucky in that the second assignment is one piece of continuous prose, which suits those of us whose shopping lists tend to be longer than the OU standard word limit for single questions. The assignment is essentially to respond to a list of words - concrete items like "a comb" and abstract nouns like "abandonment". I read through the list, thought, "Hmm," went to bed, and couldn't sleep. About 3am I gave up and started writing about the ideas I had.

Abandonment, unlike the previous "child on a city street" assignment, gives me a lot to work with. I am choosing to write in the persona of a woman abandoned as a baby in the classical dramatic circumstances, on the steps of a city centre church. Although her subsequent adoption has gone well, she wonders about all the things most children take for granted: roots, looking like your parents, where her musical talent has come from.

Talking of churches, I was out photographing and drawing one midweek, for its website. The drawings were quite light pencil, and won't work online - they were for ideas and possible use elsewhere. The photos were designed to give me a set of background and incidental images to work with.

I am also learning Greek at the moment, and have an exam in a few weeks. If past history is anything to go by, I shall probably get increasingly nervous about it.

This is not with the OU, it's a real life evening class, and a very good one. We have been studying for nearly two terms. I did some Latin at school, and I've learned Spanish as an adult, so I am not completely new to the idea of complicated grammar. I also keep hearing that Greek is supposedly easier than Latin (not sure why?) and also that this form of Greek, Koine or New Testament Greek, is the easiest there is. There still seems to be rather a lot of it to take in.

On the plus side, although there are five or six thousand different words in the New Testament, ninety percent of the actual occurrences are of a much smaller core of six hundred words, so a lot of modern textbooks concentrate on making sure you are familiar with those.

Doing this has already proved illuminating. Greek, for example, has several different ways of giving an order or suggestion, all of which tend to get flattened into one form of imperative in English, as it can be hard to get across all the nuances in translation.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

First deadline

I have handed in my first OU assignment. I have to say I absolutely hated the first question - which involved writing in the voice of a child. I don't have children, or nieces or nephews in this country, or friends with small children. I've never taught children or worked with them. I grew up as the only child in a house in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the nearest other child, and I didn't exactly get to be a child much myself. All in all, writing as a child is not exactly the most obvious assignment for me.

When I was a child, I read voraciously (still do). That was one of the things that got me through being on my own, but it also meant I lived through books rather than real experience some of the time.

On the weekend writing course, a lot of people said they had 'always' written. Looking back on it, I guess that is true of me too, but I hadn't really thought about it that way. I wrote stories as a kid, and started a journal when I was about fifteen. That had to be kept hidden from family, and later partners, and for most of my twenties and thirties that was all I wrote. I would occasionally get an idea for a short story, and write it out longhand on file paper over a few days, then that would be it for a couple of years. It took several years of doing morning pages, on and off, before I started finding myself writing fiction.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

First assignment

I am battling with my first eTMA for the OU course (electronic Tutor Marked Assignment in OU-speak). Yesterday I struggled valiantly with it by reading two novels completely unrelated to my chosen subject matter in one day instead of getting on with any writing as such. Today I opened up the files to find much what I expected - I have three five-hundred word pieces to write, and I already had a draft of the first one and nothing but ideas for the other two. I now have a painfully short draft for the second and too much for the third, but at least there is something there which I can build on.

Recently, writing has been coming quite naturally, but my only ideas have been for pieces of my own - patching further incidents into a novella-length thing I started a couple of months ago, mainly. Once again, I have a "compulsory assignment = block" problem. This didn't happen when I was away for the weekend, there, something would come up within a minute or two at most when the tutor announced the next question, even though there were ten or a dozen of these per day. I think the seriousness level is higher for me - only 3 lots of 500 words to showcase whatever skills I have.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Weekend writing course

I'm back from my weekend in a country house writing. This means I have now shown some of my work to other people, IRL, and lived.

I had a great time, met a set of very interesting characters, and did writing exercises and talked about writing almost non-stop for a few days. There was a very gentle introduction to reading out our writing: starting with a few sentences about why we were on the course, followed by a selection of favourite words and then a paragraph using one of them.

I've belatedly 'remembered' (i.e. let myself remember) how I always thought I 'wanted to be a writer' from approximately two feet tall and then realised writers generally showed their writing to other people. So that was the end of that, then: I'd been bullied pretty much from the word go at various schools, and the last thing I would ever feel safe doing would be to give out extra-effective ammunition in the form of handwritten keys to my inner thoughts.

The discovery that I can actually do this was made in tandem with being reminded that other forms of writing exist, besides fiction, and the suggestion that I might like to try some of them. We'll see.

I did a couple of OU activity exercises in an insomniac 1 a.m. moment too, meaning I am only about 13 behind.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Writing in libraries; writing away from home

Yesterday afternoon I took my laptop, notebooks and course notes and wrote in a library in the city for a few hours. I found the lack of internet distractions and the different location very conducive to work, and also made a few appearance notes and character sketches of some of the other visitors as part of one of my activities. Finally I am getting some ideas and images for the assignments in this course. I started on the second block yesterday and found it relied mostly on extended extracts from a very helpful and witty writing book. I think this, as well as the new setting, really freed up my imagination.

Tomorrow I leave for a weekend writing course in the country. It’s in a big house with extensive grounds, both beautiful and neglected and secret-garden-ish in places, on the outskirts of a small city. I know this because I have been there several times before for pottery, and this is my first trip for any other type of course there. I am, obviously, really looking forward to it, and it will be interesting to see how it contrasts with the OU course. Given that it is IRL not online I will have to meet actual other writers and probably show people my writing fresh on the page, for the first time ever. That could be nerve-wracking. From the course flyer, it looks as though it may be pitched more towards how to go about selling and publishing your work than the OU course, so I’m eager to find out how that plays out when I get there.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Shrove Tuesday

Seasonality - a good thing?

One thing I missed when I spent a lot of time in a tropical country was the lack of seasons in the weather. They had Dry: nine months of 25C during the day, 15C at night (this was at altitude, so not very hot); then they had Wet: same temperatures, but there was a cloudburst every afternoon at exactly 2:15 and then the streets would run with water for a couple of hours. No leaf fall season. Sky always either grey (clouded) or white with heat. Sun sets promptly at five-thirty in winter and six-thirty in summer. OK, the food and culture were great, but something was missing.

I love the greys of winter skies and the grey-greens of winter tree trunks, the tracery of branches and twigs reaching up to the sky when the light is barely there in the hush of December. I grew up in the country but not really plugged into the rhythms of the agricultural year, not being right in the midst of a farming community. There's some vestigial part of me that responds to it and misses it on some level, though, although I don't intend to leave the city anytime soon.

Now it's trying to be spring outside, some buds on the twigs of hedges and some crocuses under trees on flat lawns that get a lot of sun, on the days when we have sun. Today is the day to make pancakes, tomorrow ashes, then six weeks of contemplation and preparation, then feasting. I like this.

The last couple of months I have occasionally been cooking from a secondhand cookbook listing food for the seasons. Serendipity being another thing I like, I was particularly pleased to find this book in a charity shop on the south coast when I was supposed to be shopping for a cheap fancy dress outfit for a New Year's party. My first boyfriend's mother used to have a copy, although as a vegetarian at the time it wasn't much use to me. My grandmother also had one. I haven't gone so far as to make marmalade this February, although the photos of amber and jewelled jars of the orange stuff made me wonder about sterilising a few of the jars hanging around waiting to hold paintbrushes and turning out some mini-presents. I have tried stews and casseroles appropriate to unusual amounts of exactly the right kind of snow, and some fish dishes that are far more hearty than the usual healthy steamed white summer evening fare.

I don't usually eat sweet stuff except for special occasions anyway, so Lent is not about giving up chocolate for me, but when we get to Easter it'll be good to get into it for a while. I did make pancakes today, remembering as usual that they are OK but nothing special. (Of course that wasn't the point, the idea used to be to use up anything luxurious like butter. Favourite Mediaeval fasting fact: it was permissible to eat beavers on fish days as they lived in rivers and were therefore classified as fish.)

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Drawing again

I didn't write anything on Saturday, but I did manage to get to a life drawing workshop for the first time in about a year. My drawings were every bit as bad as you might expect after a lengthy break like that, especially as I had hardly drawn or painted anything, anywhere during the year.

But the ice is now broken.

The first pose was a near-featureless landscape with no conventional measuring points, which was a great way to start. There's some incorrect scaling and foreshortening going on in there, but I decided to post the pictures anyway to spur me on to do much better next time.

Today, writing: a plan for a story and a few hundred words of one part of it.

I'm not sure how the OU course is going - there are tons of little assignments, so many it's hard to keep track of them in your head. I guess I just have to keep showing up at the keyboard and seeing what happens.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Keeping going

I'm still trying to find the right mix of spontaneity and planning. Several of the exercises on this course suggest sitting down at the computer (or notebook etc.) and just writing in one form or other. Others suggest looking at a newspaper or turning on the radio and then picking from the stories you find there, writing one of them from the point of view of one of the people involved or using them as a jumping-off point.

I am also considering how to adapt Morning Pages to serve my new routine. Ever since I heard about these in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way I have been using them (on an off) for regular journalling. (There's a brief definition on Cameron's site) Along the way they helped me to download all the emotions from some very stressful projects, and to find out what I really thought about making art and why I got blocked doing that so often. I have never really had fictional inspirations when using them, and I'd like to change that. The last few days I have taken time to describe a few things I have seen on my walks, or images from the train window, so that I have some material which could turn from description to mood to narrative, maybe (fingers crossed).

Even if that doesn't happen, the morning pages are still good. I feel more serene when I am in the habit of doing them, and since my normal default mode is not serene at all, in fact bears comparison with headless chickens, that is no bad thing.

With a lot of small sessions of writing, I am hoping I shall patch together enough material to complete my assignments on time.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

If I have to, I won't

I've realised that the moment I have a writing assignment, rather than just an idea or two, or an inviting blank page in front of me, (yes, some of them actually are inviting) my flow of ideas dries up.

I think it's the syndrome that if something is optional, I can use it as yet another form of goofing off, so I get ideas about a novel set in a post-apocalyptic future when I am supposed to be designing a database. Tell me my job is to write a novel about a post- etc., though, and I start creating databases right left and centre, not a charred landscape in sight.

The way out is probably to allow myself lots of time to mull over ideas, and keep a notebook with me almost all the time to capture them. I am not going to be able to procrastinate and then cram for a creative writing course - especially not when I have ample opportunity to dither over a Greek course.

And some of the assignments! Describe something happening in a city street from the point of view of a child. Great, except (i) I grew up in the country, so none of my own memories are of cities, (ii) I was an only child and have no children myself, nor nieces nor nephews etc. in this country, so don't interact with children very often, (iii) I didn't really get to be a child myself, being more of a four-foot high carer for incapable adults than a kid. Apart from that, then, no problem.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

OU "Start Writing Fiction"

The OU course is about to start officially, but the website and forums are already live. I've started looking through the course materials. The main thread of the course consists of five blocks on the website with small activities interspersed throughout. There is also a print anthology and an audio CD of author interviews, where the compilers have divided the content up into sets of responses to single questions, e.g. you get to hear how three or four authors began writing, or how they divide up their working day. The information on getting started with writing at the beginning of the course is all common sense once you've heard it but, not having had any instruction before, it's still useful to me to get a simple introduction.

I had a few days about a week ago where I wrote every day, mostly little bits and pieces in response to the OU questions. This week has been very unproductive, partly due to being busy with other things and partly due to a piece of bad financial news which had a huge impact on my creativity, peace of mind, ability to sleep etc. etc. I am now back in a more rational mode, mostly, trusting I shall get out of this one, that I still have all the skills I had before The Big News hit, and so on. I tend to suffer from a feeling that I am endlessly chasing my tail: trying to get things done in computing, art and writing as well as being very active in my faith, working to get much fitter as it has positive ramifications in all aspects of my precarious health, and fighting procrastination and this deep-seated loathing I have of any and all paperwork and administration.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

The story so far about the story so far...

So, not the world's most prolific blog, then.

As I might have predicted, I dived so deep into the challenge of NaNo that I didn't actually take any time to blog about NaNo. For the record, it was a fantastic few weeks of mad writing and I learned loads: how to keep going whether I felt like writing or not, how to keep (mostly) to a plot outline I had made for myself instead of waiting days for inspiration to strike, a recipe for chocolate cherry cupcakes. A thread at the Ship of Fools boards ( explanation here if you haven't heard of them ) provided some extra support for a devoted contingent of writers. I drank a lot of tea, even by my usual standards.

After nine days I had 50K words. On the morning of day nine I realised how close I was to "finishing" and took a day out to go for it. "Finishing" seemed to be defined as reaching 50K words, or reaching the end of your story arc if longer, so on one measurement I was nowhere near finished. In the early hours of 24th November I hit the last sentence of my narrative, although I had written some of the later sections with far less detail than the earlier parts, at just under 108 000 words.

I now had the first draft of a novel. My new story follows the life of a potter born in a central European society a couple of hundred years from now, sufficiently distanced from an ecological and political catastrophe that has changed the world. As an ordinary craftsperson, he is on some levels a free agent due to his talent and hard work, on others he is at the mercy of the forces sweeping through his people. Stuff gets said about Art which may or may not turn out to be pretentious when I get round to opening the box file and editing it. Pots get described. He falls for people, develops as a craftsman, is frustrated by various restrictions in his life, gets caught up in a rebellion that turns into all-out war, survives.

Then I stopped writing for a couple of days.

Then I had to start writing again because it seemed to have insinuated itself into my life to stay. Sometime around this point, I signed up for a 10-point course with the OU called "Start Writing Fiction," (course summary here ) mentally appending the word "properly" to this title. This officially starts in a few days, but I have already started the reading and a few of the activities along the way. It seems quite promising so far, I have already seen some good suggestions for sparking ideas and finding ways to write out of a block. At the end of next month, I also have a weekend creative writing course booked, at an adult education site I have previously visited for pottery tuition, in a beautiful setting, so I know that's likely to be good.