fiction writing assignment – Cat glasses and Pekinese

Cat glasses and Pekinese

13 May 2014

Today there was a woman on a bus carrying a Pekinese dog inside her handbag. He had a red bow on his head that matched her sweater.

At first glance, I thought she was in her mid-fifties, but on closer inspection, underneath the pancake makeup and sequined cat glasses, I found her to be much younger.

She seemed like a spy in reverse – instead of drawing attention away from herself so she could slip into places unseen, she attracted the attention of everyone around. For one thing, she kept waving her arms about, which caused the rhinestones on her fingers to sparkle.

No one on the bus was acknowledging her presence, but as soon as she turned away, the passengers would steal a more direct look, and they couldn’t keep their eyes off the little dog.

She kept fiddling with the bow on his head, straightening and adjusting it. Her rings flashed and white powder puffed up from the dog in a perfumey cloud. Other than occasionally licking his lips with a tiny pink tongue, the dog didn’t move at all. He could almost have been a toy.

On her lap she had an old brownie box camera. Was she going to some event to take pictures, maybe a dog show?

I wondered who she was. Judging from the shine on her pumps, she wasn’t on the dole. Or maybe those heels had been resoled recently? And there was a bit of awkward stitching around the toe of one shoe. I wasn’t quite sure.

While I was looking at her feet, I heard a soft click. I raised my head, and she turned quickly to the side, so I couldn’t catch her eye. Both hands were on the camera and the little dog sat serenely in the bag next to her. I took that moment to break the ice, “Oh, what a cute doggie! Where are you taking him?”

“No place, really. I’m just riding the bus. And you? Where are you going, dearie?”

Dearie? I leaned forward, and could see that her skin was perfectly smooth under the makeup. She must be about the same age as my daughter. “Nowhere special, I have a day off work and I thought I’d head to the seafront and see what I could see.”

“That sounds nice. I might have a little walk on the prom, myself. Fancy a cup of tea?”

Later, at the seaside cafe, I asked about the dog. “Oh, he’s my helper, people just adore him, don’t they?”

“Mmm. He’s a cutie, alright.” I reached out to rub behind his ears.

“I’ve got a lot of good snaps already today. You should come along to my exhibit next month. Claudine Mayer Sherman.” She extended her hand.

I gasped. “You’re opening at the Southbank Centre!”

The Observer had a feature on her street photography just last week. But in the article, she’d appeared without cat glasses and without the Pekinese.


I guess she was a kind of spy.


[Inspired by the story of Vivien Maier with echoes of Cindy Sherman]


Rom Com – writing exercise for end of week 2

This is the final writing assignment for the end of week 2, which was to listen to the radio and get some ideas for a story from the first thing you heard. I took some phrases from a comedy sketch on a Fresh Air programme on NPR and I deliberately let them lead me in a different direction from the programme itself. I started by imagining the feeling behind the words, and then the person who would be feeling that. Once I can picture it, the story unfolds and I can both see and hear the characters and the setting.That happened here.

The assignment was to write a 500-word story. This is actually shorter and came out the way my vignette fiction / flash fiction pieces do. This is an early draft and will be revised and possibly expanded. We were encouraged to include as much of the following as possible:

  • physical description
  • thoughts and inner life
  • personality
  • where the character is located
  • the character’s back story
  • how the character acts in the world.

I did these but with a light touch and in a very condensed form, even less than the 500 words but somehow the sequence seemed to tell the whole story. I may end up writing more next week. Hope you like it.


Rom Com

It was 10 pm when she walked into the student union. She clutched the front edges of her cardigan together – it was missing a button. Disco lights flashed overhead and music reverberated around her. People were clustered around the bar, leaning towards each other. They looked as if they were shouting but she couldn’t hear any voices.

Does anybody want to talk to me?

Last week she’d driven 200 miles to come here for her first year at uni, and she didn’t know a soul. Not only that, she was the only girl in the whole room wearing a cardigan.

She squeezed up to the bar with a fiver clenched in her hand. It took a while, but eventually the barman looked in her direction. “Vodka tonic, please.” That sounded sophisticated, didn’t it?

She took a sip. It looked and tasted remarkably like lemonade, just not as sweet. Then she made her way to a corner, where she saw someone from her programming module. He was short and a little plump, to put it kindly, and he had black curls sticking out in all directions. He was nursing a Brains bitter. And he seemed to be completely alone!


“Gina, is it?”

“Erm, well, Jean actually. How did you do on that first assignment?”

“Oh, it was rubbish. No idea why they had us write some code before they’d even taught us anything. I’m not the smartest guy.” He smiled, and his dimples came out.

She paused a beat. Maybe you’re not, she thought, but you do have warm eyes. She slid into the booth and sat next to him, feeling like a version of herself in a sitcom, no, make that a rom com. She was the young sophisticate taking him under her wing, yeah, he was a fledgling and she would teach him to soar.

And when he turned into an eagle, she’d be the envy of all those girls at the bar, in their black little-nothing dresses and high high heels.

A place to write

Here is another squib. This is supposed to be a description of a place that is good for writing. I’m working on a series of poems that are written in, and sometimes about, the Treehouse, so this fits. It puts the writer into the scene.


As soon as she stepped into the upstairs room of the cafe, her shoulders relaxed. It must have been the soft colours, cream and turquoise, or maybe it was the filtered light. She found a table and sat down, squiggling into the pillow on the seat. She’d already ordered her lapsang souchong from downstairs, they’d be bringing it up momentarily. She took out her notebook and opened it to the ribboned page. She exhaled slowly and gazed out the window. Birds. Soon the silence was broken by the sound of her pen scratching on the paper. Faeries, faeries riding on the backs of blackbirds. Now why had that popped into her mind? She carried on, making little sketches in the margins.

ordinary words used in unusual ways

Here is another exercise for the writing class. It turned into a flash fiction piece. Close to first draft here. There is one main word used in this description that is used in what I hope is a fresh and original way. I won’t tell you what it is.

Just Desserts

It was a cast party. The waiters had put tables together into a long row, taking up half of the restaurant. Danny sat with his lead actors and actresses to either side of him, the lighting and sound technicians on the end. They were on their second round of bottles of wine, voices cresting and surging like waves. He was in the middle of a story about gypsies in Rome when he noticed Lydia chatting up the chef. His voice plateaued and he put down his glass of Merlot. The others did the same. “Well, let’s pay up, shall we? Well done everyone.”

When Lydia came back to the table, he clamped his lips shut. She sat down and started to eat her tiramisu just as everyone else stood up, abandoning theirs. “What? Doesn’t anyone want their dessert?” She carried on eating as they filed out without a word. She sighed. Being a director’s wife was so lonely.

Exercise 3 for fiction writing course

The paragraph below is based on a very brief video clip. I’ve extended the description beyond what was in the clip. I noticed that the writing on the books was Japanese, so I placed her in Tokyo’s Shinjuku shopping district (a place I have visited years ago). The exercise was about using description to make a scene rich.

What do you think, is there potential in this little chunk? Does it make you want to read more?

She stood in the biology section of the bookshop, sandwiched between the bookcases lining the aisle. Her her fingers danced rapidly over her magenta phone. The corners of her lips tightened. She tipped her head forward, letting her hair fall around her face. A cloud of pink perfume wafted upwards, and there was a faint sound of air suddenly puffing out from her nostrils – not quite a snort. Where was Kazuo? He said he would meet her here half an hour ago.

There wasn’t even room to pace in the shop. She gave a little stomp and then slipped her earbuds in, turning up the volume as loud as it could go. That was better, a little bit of thrash. Then she strode out into the centre of the Shinjuku shopping district. The street was as bright as day, even though it was already 10pm. The neon signs made everyone in the street look like cartoon characters, in red and green and yellow.

She swung her arms at her sides as she walked through the crowd, and nearly bumped into an elderly gentleman on the corner. She wasn’t sure where she was going, and she didn’t even care. Coffee, that was what she needed. And maybe a new boyfriend.

Here is a picture of Shinjuku

Starting to Write Fiction – MOOC

This has been a busy week. I have:

  1. submitted my portfolio for the postgraduate certificate in teaching in higher education. Now waiting for the marks, probably in June.
  2. gone to Dublin for the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference, where I delivered my session about using Blackboard’s Exemplary Course Programme rubric to enable staff to redesign and enhance their courses. Lots of good things came out of that, maybe establish a community of practice.
  3. started the Future Learn MOOC course in writing fiction, which is an Open University free online course.
  4. Image

With all this, I am very pleased that I’ve managed to complete all the assignments in the first week of the MOOC. I’ve been doing a fair amount of short fiction, maybe as short as ‘flash fiction’ for almost two years now. I also did an afternoon workshop in fiction writing given by Honno, the Welsh women’s press, about a month ago, so this is coming at a good time.

I’m very pleased that with all the activity this week, I have managed to complete all the assignments so far. There are little video clips with transcripts (I find sometimes I just read the transcripts, it is faster). There was an audio clip with interesting observations by established writers about why they write, and an assignment to post some thoughts about why I write in response to this. There was a really nice video clip that had observations of people in public, but no real sound track (just some music). This was used as a prompt…we were asked to observe either from the clip or from life, and write down the details. Then we were given two passages showing different approaches to characterisation through description, and given two further activities where we developed our writing.

There have been NO QUIZZES! (sorry to shout). Actually I quite like that. I also like that there are many small and manageable tasks for us to do, using the comments section of each post (or our blog if we want). The instructions for the tasks are clear, and we can interact with other students by making comments on their posts. Very nicely designed.

The intimidating thing was on the very first day…I was at work all day so I couldn’t go to the MOOC until that evening. In a matter of only several hours, more than 700 posts had been made for the first mini-assignment!! I didn’t try to read them all, but dipped in and out sampling some of them.

The part I’m not sure about is where the peer assessment will come in, what we are meant to produce by the end. A short story, I think, but the details haven’t been given yet. We are taking the journey one step at a time.

If you are interested, this module is still open for people to join. It lasts 8 weeks.

So far, I would recommend it.