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23 Mar

Snapping bubble gum between her teeth in a way that annoys even herself, Al steps out of the front door, half registering that it’s warm enough to not need a coat.

She’s wearing one anyway.

Key lodged under the plant pot by the steps, her rubber soles thwack on concrete and she’s off down the hill. Her friend Lucy is waiting at the end of the road, as promised.

Lucy carries her awkward bundle of bones in her uniform. They stretched before she was expecting them to; adolescence and all its unreasonable anger poured into a glass like a dropped can of Coke, fizz rising to the top and spilling out before she could stop it.

They call out things that feel like normal teenage words. Perhaps “Hey,” or “Yo,” definitely nothing like OMG or LOL. This happened before all that.

They pass the woods on the left. The air hums with the start of summer.

New green things unfurling, becoming tall in the silence.

Chlorophyll flooding venation, a viridescent tide swelling underfoot and overhead, sweeping everything on it, under it, in it.

Damp earth warming in the already-potent morning sunlight and fermenting like wine. Photosynthesis everywhere.

Normally they chat. Boys, girls, teachers, TV. Not today.

The woods start to thin out and a hill rises in front of them. To their left, a gap in the hedge and beyond it: fields. They stop. They both know that they can just carry on and the other will go with it. That would be easier.

Each of them half wants the other to just walk forward and carry on up the hill so they can follow, but the plan said now or never. If you could have asked them afterwards, each would probably lay claim to being the first to turn away from the inevitable and towards the unknown.

There were no witnesses so early in the morning, no dog walkers or postmen. If there had been, they would have reported no sass. No teenage bravado. No jostle to be first through the gap.

Just two friends, disappearing.


Image: @Jadhill98 on Instagram

Cut from the team

5 Oct

Story #1 from 712 more things to write about by the San Fransisco Writer’s Grotto.


4 Sep

Task 1: A story about a journey.


Standard issue backpack, check.
Communication devices, check.
Access cards. Access cards? Where are they? Did I lose them? Surely not…

I tap my pocket for the third time that hour, feeling that hard, rectangular shape respond solidly to my touch. Almost reassuring. Almost, but not quite.

Don’t panic.

I’m lucky. My vessel is in a part of this quadrant that sits out in the open. Rare, these days. Most of the air around here is too thick to breathe, makes most people sick. I find that standing and sucking on the standard issue AirTubes helps. It’s worth the mild headache and creeping nausea to catch the last bit of AirTime before I’m shuttled away. Kind of helps with the nerves. The AirTubes even come in different flavours, now. This one is reminiscent of some sort of synthetic mint that rings a bell from what I assume to be my childhood, but I’m never sure if memories are real, these days. They say they’re not. They’ve done research.

The vessel arrives, or should I say, appears. Always that same breathtaking, break-neck speed, a whoosh and a snap and where there once was nothing, there’s a shuddering mass of soft grey metal, once sparkling, when I first joined The Alliance; now peppered with rust and pock-marked by dents where Things have hit it. I try not to think of that as I board.

I’ve done journeys like this a million times before, or at least that’s how it feels. My access card would say it’s more like hundreds of times, but still. When it’s a new route, I can’t help but feel a little light-headed at the prospect of some variation in what could be considered by some to be a dull, grey, dot matrix printout of a life. Considered that way by some. Not by me. Obviously. Not if The Alliance is listening, anyway. Which it is, of course.

I’m trembling. Part fear, part excitement. I try to steady it. Even though I have my instructions for the journey, I’m never fully sure that I’m going to make it. You just can’t be, these days.

I feel other agents attempting eye contact with me, and I avoid it. I’ve been down that road before and it never ends well. It starts with eye contact and before you know it, The Alliance is ‘advising’ you to avoid that route at all costs, forever. If you’re lucky, they sometimes assign you a new one like they did to me; or they’ll close the old one down completely if they have to. That’s bad news. For everyone. Eye contact just makes life harder. Head down, focus on the floor.

This vessel feels no different to the others I’ve been on. The Alliance isn’t big on diversity. Spacious enough in cubic millimetres to invalidate any complaints but cramped enough to make you pine for the thick, bilious smog outside the cruelly-tinted windows that block out any hope of light. Not that there’d be any to see, even if the windows allowed for it. Not down here.

A metallic crackle through a public address system confirms our destination and the airlock starts to contract, ready to seal the vessel. As the beeps counting down our take-off increase in urgency, I spot the hazy shape of an agent running towards the air lock from outside. I feel a collective tightening of nerves as the realisation that he’s not going to make it spreads through the capsule; the crackle of dry grass consumed by flames on a hot day. We watch him fall back as we’re sucked into a black unknown; ever faithful, onwards and sideways, autopilot on; inevitable, regretful, resigned.

The vessel hurtles through thick darkness, as dusty as a bran tub lucky dip at a village fair in an old film – or maybe a memory, who knows? The air in the capsule is tepid, almost wet in contrast to the parched atmosphere outside, sponging me down with its disconcerting warmth. I try to breathe in as little as possible, sucking in tiny gulps of air from the side of my mouth, avoiding the ribbons of carbon dioxide streaming from the mouths of my fellow travellers.

We take off.

Some of the newer agents stumble as they acclimatise to the velocity of the vessel. I’d heard this section of the network was faster than the rest, but even as a seasoned agent, I’m shocked at how our heads whip back – just a fraction, but enough to scare us – before we’re stabilised to that same, maddening pace as everything else in the quadrant: fast forwarded nonchalance, a fake slipstream current sucking everyone along like a creek, hungry to send its waters out to sea. Godspeed!

Through the scruffy, constructed night we hurtle, nothing to indicate we’re moving at all, other than the odd jolt here and there and the assurance from the public address system that we’re entering or exiting another quadrant. They say it is so, so it is so.

My new quadrant is announced as the next destination. Mission control will be expecting me any time now. Of course, The Alliance runs the faction that’s responsible for delivering me and millions of other agents safely to our destination pods for each day’s labour, so they know exactly what time I board and leave the vessel, even as my feet are stepping into the travelator.

I fix myself in position and prepare to be ejected. A mission indeed, and one I’ll be doing again in reverse in eight hours. But for now, it’s okay. As I break the surface of this new area, the air feels lighter, thinner. Space lies between me and the other agents now, instead of just millimetres. The panic abates, albeit only slightly.

I’m out.

I’m okay.

I survived my commute.

Thirty days, thirty stories

3 Sep

Inspired by Thirty days, thirty stories, which my friend AGP kindly brought to my attention, I’ve decided to get involved with this mini storywriting challenge. Not for any other reason than I enjoy writing stories and generally have 4 hours a day to kill on public transport.

Feel free to join me if it’s your thing. The topics for each story are below, I’ll be starting from scratch tomorrow and finishing in October as I only found out about it today. Looking forward to sharpening my pen nib again and getting scratchy against some paper.

September 2014.

1. A story about a journey.

2. A story about change.

3. A story about books.

4. A story about a meeting.

5. A story about death.

6. A story about a sound.

7. A story about loss.

8. A story about nothing.

9. A story about paper.

10. A story about the future.

11. A story about a postcard, or a letter.

12. A story about love.

13. A story about beginnings.

14. A story about a building.

15. A story about an animal.

16. A story about a song.

17. A story about forgiveness.

18. A story about secrets.

19. A story about a phone conversation.

20. A story about a photograph.

21. A story about a room.

22. A story about a personal object.

23. A story about dancing.

24. A story that is true.

25. A story that is false.

26. A story about two people.

27. A story about the great outdoors.

28. A story about your own face.

29. A story about a smell.

30. A story about endings.

Feel free to share this list and pass it on (and tell me where you’re writing if you like!)

Each story will be posted here, I’d love to see yours, too. 

How to tell a good story

30 Jan

One of the most inspiring sessions I attended at Learning Technologies 2014 was the one on Storytelling, which was run by Deborah Frances-White. Deborah is a comedian and screenwriter, so it was interesting to see how you might apply some of the techniques she uses to learning.

Capturing hearts as well as heads with the magic of stories.

You’re watching Newsnight. The phone rings. You answer it, you go back to Newsnight and you can more or less pick up where you left off. The programme is easy to dip into/out of.

Now, imagine you’re watching a crime drama. The phone rings. Most people ignore it, because they can’t afford to miss one minute of the drama in case they miss an important fact that reveals the whole story. The programme is compelling and you’re engaged throughout; you don’t want to miss a second.

What’s the difference between the two? The story.

The same goes for learning. If we want to engage learners, we can use storytelling techniques to make our learning so compelling that they don’t want to miss a second – every part of the course, video, programme or portal becomes vital to the denouement at the end.

So, how do you craft a compelling story?

  1. Just because it’s obvious, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen.

We like predictability. Cause and effect is familiar to us and without it, a story can’t make sense. This doesn’t mean a story has to be dull or clichéd, but it is more likely to hold the attention of an audience if it is linear and easy to follow.

  1. If we don’t know our characters they’re a headline, not a hero.

If your audience aren’t invested in your characters or don’t have enough context of how they fit into your story, they will become disengaged. We don’t feel compelled to engage with people we don’t know or feel emotionally invested in. You don’t always feel the need to read a news story about ‘Man arrested for road rage’, however if you read ‘Local teacher arrested for road rage’, you have a connection with the character and feel more compelled to engage with the story. You’d be even more likely to read on if you personally know the man, ‘Local teacher John Doe arrested for road rage’.

  1. Stick with your obvious – it will be a surprise to someone

By sticking with what’s obvious to you in a story, you will surprise your audience eventually. The mundane can be quite exciting when you add people, emotion and jeopardy…

  1. Make your character stand out and be relevant to the audience – don’t be generic

In a learning context, the character may not be a person, depending on the story you’re telling. It could be a piece of software; for example, if the IT&S teams are implementing software that has real value for the end user but is a painful process to install; the software becomes the hero – in this story, the users are without access to a system for a while but eventually the software is installed and it makes them more productive and able to have a better work-life balance. Or, if you’re speaking to a team which is signing off the budget for the software, the cost savings become the hero. It’s all about tailoring your story to your audience.

  1. Keep making promises about what’s to come to keep your story compelling.

Teasers are essential to keep the story compelling. Use the ‘pull back to reveal’ storytelling device – you can start with something obscure, but keep layering on detail to paint a picture – a technique very often used in comedy sketches/stories.

  1. Bracket your story by relating the end to what happened at the start.

A sense of completeness adds fulfilment to the listener/reader/viewer. This doesn’t mean you have to say ‘happily ever after’ or make everything obvious, but make sure you story has a clear beginning, middle and an end:

This was the problem > This happened > So this happened > And this was the outcome

A few other pointers:

Become adept at telling simple stories before telling complex ones.

Make your audience care about the characters of your story before bringing in the drama. If the audience isn’t invested or don’t have enough context for what’s happening, they don’t care. Hold off the drama until your audience knows the storyteller/characters in the story.

A note on drama – stories aren’t always about ‘bad stuff’ happening. Drama doesn’t have to be about conflict, it can be one person being changed by the actions or behaviour of another.

People don’t care more about other heroes than they do about themselves – so if you can make your hero’s story relate to your audience, you’re golden.

So now it’s your turn. Go on, start your very own version of ‘once upon a time’…

#NaNoWriMo 2011

2 Nov

Okay, so those of you who know me well will know that every year since 2003 I have participated in National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it is affectionately known. This is where you challenge yourself to write an entire novel of 50,000 words in a month.

Nanowrimo national novel writing month gemma critchley literary abandom dystopian fiction

I’ve got close before, I even did around 30,000 words one year, but have never yet managed to complete (or ‘win’, as it’s known) NaNoWriMo.

This year I’m giving it another bash, just because I love what it stands for: 30 days and nights of complete literary abandon, where it doesn’t matter what you write or who reads it or how good it is. You end up throwing self-editing caution to the proverbial wind and just writing for writing’s sake. I love it.

This year I’m going for dystopian future meets Mills & Boon. It’s called ‘Speculate on a star’. The synopsis is:

“Romeo meets Juilet meets 1984. Think Dystopian science fiction meets Mills & Boon, with consequences that are not always as ridiculous as you might think.

The year is 2111. Vona works for ADCORP, processing advertising for the government which has since taken over from law enforcement. Police are no longer required as people simply do what adverts tell them to.

Otro is one of the last people left who practice ‘Ignorance’, an ancient skill left over from the turn of the new millennium, when people could simply choose to ignore what they do not want to see. This rare skill is highly sought by the world’s leaders as it is the one way they are able to make clear decisions without being swayed by the advertising of other countries.

Otro doesn’t care about the government; he chooses to ignore them and wants to spread the word of how Ignorance can be the path to enlightenment. He is on a mission to find other Ignorants who can join him in his quest. He stumbles across Vona who has the gift of Ignorance and the power to change advertising, and thought, forever.

But will she?”

I’ll probably use my One a Day blog to write some of it too, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Have you tried it before? Leave a comment and tell me all about it!

A story for #sharethelove

28 Oct

This is a story inspired by #sharethelove, a movement on Twitter that encourages people to show a bit of human kindness and to help those reaching out to them, and that encourages people who feel like they need help to be able to ask for it.

It can be something as serious as feeling depressed and needing someone to talk to or something as simple as wanting to make people smile. I fall into the latter category and so, here’s a story, specifically requested by Ralph Razor, which is designed to make people feel a bit better about the world.

lovely books pretty ribbons gemma critchley story writing #sharethelove twitter share the love Ralph Razor razor stiletto beatifnik


Holding tightly onto the rail, I inch a step closer to the edge.

Rather than have my eyes squeezed shut against the ugly, dark wall of fear that rears up, black and brazen, building itself in front of me, I have them snapped wide open. It’s as if they’re held wide with stitches or hooks or some other medieval way of making me act against my instincts.

But this isn’t force. Oh no, this is all self-inflicted.

Well, I say self inflicted. It wasn’t as if I had planned to end up in this position. It had started as a normal day, wake up, hit snooze on the alarm clock, sleep for another twenty minutes, wake up late, dunk self in shower, scramble around the flat for the outfit that at least remotely resembles office attire. Get on bus, snooze on bus, get off bus, sleepwalk to office.

But that’s where the normal day ended.

As I walked from the bus stop to the office, I passed the same closed down cafe, the same run down post office and the same falling down church. I looped around a corner and then towards the path that takes me along the river to my office.

Now, I make this trip five days per week at roughly the same time (give or take five minutes depending on how much I struggled with the whole ‘waking up’ debacle) and never once have I ever noticed the delicate-looking wrought iron foot bridge that gracefully – and curiously – arced across the water. It rose from the footpath at the side of the river and branched out across the water just before I reached work. It is entirely possible that in my headphone-muted bubble of morning haze, I had simply failed to take in my surroundings. Many people do it, very few would be found ‘not guilty’ on a charge of moving too fast to stop and appreciate what’s around them. But something about the bridge told me that this simply wasn’t a case of Commutus Oblivious. For a start, the bridge was humming at me. That’s right. Humming.

I don’t mean the bridge was happily going about its business, humming a merry little tune. The bridge itself seemed to be vibrating so quickly that it was filling the air about it with the gentle buzz of its movement. The longer I looked at the bridge (and I’m fairly sure I had been standing and staring open-mouthed at it for a good five minutes by this point), the louder the hum got, until it was almost making a high pitched ringing noise, like the sound you get when you run your finger around the edge of a crystal wine glass.

As the sound swelled, the bridge itself seemed to glow – a warm, golden pulse that could easily have been a reflection of sunlight on water – only it wasn’t sunny in the slightest. It was grey and damp and cold all around me, not a chink of ethereal light coming from anywhere else. In front of me the bridge glowed, beckoning me onto it, giving it the old mermaid siren song and I, of course, was a sailor in my answer to its call. Like a pin to a magnet, I couldn’t help myself. Casting a short, sidelong glance toward the dull tower of concrete I had been sentenced to spend the next eight hours in, I felt a pull inside my stomach, tugging me towards the golden light and warm hum of the alternative route that had somehow presented itself to me. The other aspect of this bridge that grabbed me was that it didn’t reach the other side, or at least I couldn’t see it. Despite it only being a few feet away, the end of the bridge seemed to tail off into the unknown.

It feels ludicrous to think of what I must have looked like as my colleagues and fellow commuters pushed past me. Their collars high against the wind, their eyes fixed on the ground, not one person seemed to be seeing what I was seeing. I got the odd dirty look and one person even tutted as he pushed past but I hardly noticed. It must have looked like I was staring out into the churning steel of the river below, when in fact the bridge in front of me was not only tangible, but it was also inviting me to take its path.

Despite the dubious (and possibly imaginary) grounds for my decision, I stepped off the bank of the river with a conviction that I have never felt before in anything I’ve ever done. I don’t think I could have stopped myself, even if I wanted to. There was a moment when my head pulsed and I felt sick with the adrenaline that surged through me. My body screamed that I was possibly doing something incredibly stupid, but that was simply the physical reflex reaction to an completely emotional action. I had to walk along the bridge. I was born to do it. I had half expected to be tossed down the 20 foot drop onto the rocks and swirling grey water below, but the bridge held me. I kept on walking, half terrified, half serene, walking further and further towards the place where bridge became air and solid ground became certain death.

And here I am. The warm iron of the railing against my palms. The low hum of vibrating metal all around. The choice, to walk or to stop, all mine to make.

My eyes are still wide open, and excitement is hammering out an elaborate drum solo in my heart. My feet failing to fail me. I move forwards, onwards and upwards. My head is high, my fear is as real as the bridge I’m walking on.

I keep walking.

I keep walking.

At the mountains of madness

21 Oct

The other night, I drove home after going out for dinner with some friends over in South Yorkshire. As I drove back, I decided to take a route I don’t normally take, which involves driving through the countryside and a place called Marr, then getting on the A1.

I’d driven this route hundreds of times before when I worked in Bradford, but not for about a year. The countryside is pretty standard Yorkshire fields, hills and valleys and whilst being pretty, it wasn’t particularly breathtaking. Until the other night, that is.

I drove up through High Melton and then hooked a right, flipped full beam on and negotiated the narrow country road in the pitch dark. Trees on either side blocked out any potential moonlight and whilst there was a circle of clear sky above, there were clouds gathering on the horizon. As I rounded the bend which leads into a dip in the hills before you come to Marr, I was struck with a weird sense of awe and fright.

The moon hung fat and low in the sky, resting on its back amongst the clouds, honey tinged and dark. It cast its dull orange glow across the still fields, ushering its slow light towards me. As the light hit, my mouth fell open.

Looming up in front of me, out of nowhere, were two giagantic structures, silent, majestic and menacing. In the near-darkness, with an eerie amber halo around them, stood two monsters, tall and defensive. Silently warning me to not come any closer. Silently, their arms circled around their heads, gesturing to me that I should keep moving. And move I did. Struck by an initial panic then a sudden adrenaline surge, I pressed my foot down and hurtled forward, beyond these monsters from the unknown depths of outer space. As I pressed on, smaller monsters emerged, their whirling arms driving me out of their lair. A dip, a right turn, a roundabout then the bright lights of lorries and cars. I was back amongst my own kind. I was safe.

I sheepishly turned the radio up and cursed my overactive imagination.

wind turnbines at night sunset marr yorkshire fields A1 wind farm

The whole thing somehow reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness, and whilst this story is about an extremely different situation, I got that weird, momentary feeling of panic and awe that I was witnessing something completely new and unexpected and my brain couldn’t instantly process what was happening. A rare, instinctive feeling and an amazing sight.

I don’t think those wind turbines will ever look the same again, even if I go back to revisit them. It felt quite magical and I feel lucky to have seen it.

h. p. lovecraft at the mountains of madness HP lovecraft vinatge book cover

The above all happened in a matter of seconds, of course. But don’t those moments that change us forever always happen in the time it takes to breathe in and out?

A visual ode to the One a Day project

4 Aug

How I sometimes imagine my fellow one a day participants of the One a Day project may see the world, via the ever-awe-inspiring David Shrigley:


david shrigley guardian cartoon blank page art glasgow artist

It’s been a while…

31 Jul

… But I’m still here!

I haven’t just stopped blogging. I’m still writing, you just don’t see all of it on here. I’ve spent the last week getting serious about writing my book. I’m five chapters in and I’ve been plugging away at it. Last week, I went to an amazing event run by Marie Claire, as part of their ‘Inspire & Mentor’ series. The title of the event was ‘How to get published’ and was absolutely inspiring, perhaps the most inspiring night I’ve experienced.

marie claire how to get published 2011 tour lindsey kelk

I got to meet and chat with an amazing literary agent, Rowan Lawton from Peters Fraser Dunlop. I even got to meet and ask questions of Sarah Ritherdon, the publishing director at Harper Collins. But the best bit had to be meeting Lindsey Kelk, author of The Single Girl’s To Do List and the I heart series. She was not only absolutely lovely but she was inspiring in her story of how she got published.

So, that’s basically why I’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front. I’m still reading the other one a day posts and I’ll keep writing in here. This project has been great in getting me into the habit of writing every day, and I intend to continue with that.

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