Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Chapter 1

Okay, as promised here is the first chapter of Assignment 9. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on it. If you hate it, don't be nice. That doesn't help. This is a book I've written and re-written at least four times. I've been through critique groups with it and had it dissected line by line. I can handle whatever you throw at me.

Tomorrow we can look at what people come up with.


He’s going to call on me, I think. He’s going to call on me and I’ll probably puke. There are only twelve of us in this class. Seven boys and five girls. So it will not take too long before it is my turn to present my work in progress. Work in progress? So far I’ve made no progress on this so-called work. I have no idea how to start writing this. We were given the assignment almost three weeks ago and I have been putting it off ever since. Now my tutor is expecting something. A draft perhaps, or at least a detailed outline. But I have nothing. So here I am, sitting in class, working knots out of my long, red hair as I think about it. Above me a near-dead fluorescent tube hums and buzzes, disrupting my chain of thought. I have been thinking about it a lot, and the more I think, the more certain I am that the beginning was long before I ever imagined. Perhaps even before I was born.

I pray that the class will end before Ian reaches me. I even pray for Alice Wilkins to be called on before me. Alice, with her long-winded explanations and incessant questioning, her interminable need for assurance and approval. Usually it bugs me, the way it bugs almost everyone here, but today I would welcome it. It may be the only thing that saves me from humiliating myself.

I feel terrible about being unprepared. This is my favorite class. This is the reason I’m here, at this particular university. It’s a very competitive course to get into and I was extremely surprised to have been accepted. It’s not unusual to have to apply more than once; several of the other students tried two or three times before getting in. I’m the only first-year student in the class, something I initially found intimidating. Ian McCollidy is the reason for the class being so popular. He’s the tutor. If the name sounds familiar it’s probably because of his first novel, Snowshoes. It was published about ten years ago to great critical and popular acclaim. I read it for the first time four years ago, when I was fourteen, and loved it so much that I have re-read it at least once every year since. Neither of the books he has written since has been so ecstatically received, but he is still very highly regarded in literary circles. I liked both those books myself, but neither affected me in quite the same way that Snowshoes did. That was the book that made me want to be a writer. Ian has been teaching here for seven years now, and almost all the graduates of his class have achieved some success as writers.

I want that success too. I want to be a writer more than anything. Writing is the only thing I’ve ever been good at. Words, putting them together on a page, telling stories or painting pictures with them, it’s what I do best. I was twelve when I discovered the power of words. We had a substitute teacher for a week and he made us write every day. A few words of praise for a stupid little story about a stolen car, and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve written almost compulsively, filling pages and pages with what I’m sure is mostly very bad writing. Yet I got into this course, so I have a spark of hope that maybe I have talent, that maybe I can become a real writer. That spark of hope is spluttering a little now though. The first semester taught me how little I actually know, and this latest assignment has me completely blocked for the first time I can remember. I can’t seem to start anything else either. Usually if I get stuck on something, writing another piece, something completely different, will un-stick me. This time nothing’s coming at all, and that terrifies me.

Luke Stanford finishes his stammered presentation. He writes beautifully, but whenever he is asked to read his work aloud, or present an idea to the group, he stutters, mumbles and comes across as barely articulate. He’s not the only one either. I can see Ian scanning the rest of us, choosing who will be next. I glance quickly around too, trying to see if there is anyone else as uncomfortable as me. I catch the eye of a boy sitting off to the side of the boxy, windowless room. Of all the people in the class, he is the one I know the least. He wasn’t here last semester; rumor has it that he did the first part of the course last year then got called away from school for some emergency. That Ian likes his work enough to let him back in, halfway through the year, says something. I have yet to read anything of his. This assignment is the first and only thing we’ve had to do this semester. All I know about him is that his name is Mark, but as he stares across the room at me, I also know he has the most beautiful blue eyes I have ever seen. Well, eye. I can only see the left. The other is obscured behind a curtain of thick, blond hair that hangs down over his face.

Thankfully Ian does not call on me. When class ends, feeling drawn to Mark, I linger just inside the doors until he and I are alone in the room. This isn’t like me. I don’t initiate. But there is something about Mark that intrigues me and I can’t help wondering if maybe doing something different, completely out of character, might get the words that are stuck inside me flowing again.

Standing next to him, I’m suddenly aware of how tall he is. I look up at him and find those impossibly dark blue eyes upon me. When he moves, his messy, too-long hair falls away from his face and I can see the scar that twists the right side, from above his eye to a point almost in the centre of his chin.

“Hi,” he says. “I’m Mark.”

“Hi,” I reply, and before I even think about it, “I’m Casey.” I’m surprised as soon as I hear myself say it. Only my family and people who have known me since childhood call me Casey. Since I started high school I’ve been trying to get people to call me by my real name, with varying success. My full name is Kiersten Charlotte and my family always called me by my initials, KC. There is something about Mark that seems very familiar, putting me instantly at ease. It is as if I already know him, although I have never even spoken to him until now. I think this is what makes me give him my childhood nickname.

“Hi Casey.” He smiles. “Have you got time for a coffee?”

The sun is shining as we stamp through the snow to the café on the far side of the quad. It’s still very cold, but after endless weeks of steel gray skies, snow and freezing temperatures, the sunlight holds the promise of spring. Mark pushes the door open for me, letting a blast of warm air out into the cold. The café is crowded as always, but we manage to find a table by the windows and peel off several layers of clothing before going to get mugs of the thick, evil black coffee they serve here.

“You seemed a little uncomfortable back there,” Mark says as he settles himself into his chair. “In class, I mean. You haven’t written much?”

I give him a wry smile. “Much? I haven’t even started!”

“No, me neither.” Mark returns my smile. “What are you writing about?”

“My family. But I can’t figure out where to start.”

The assignment is to write something autobiographical. That part is not too difficult. The hard part is that Ian has asked us to write about something that changed our lives, something of real significance. He said that he knew it would be difficult for some of us. I’m not sure he realized quite how much.

“I know what you mean.” He looks directly at me and I see the enormous sadness shadowing his eyes. “I’m trying to write about my family too.” We sit in silence for a long moment and I wonder if his family is as messed up and crazy as my own.


  1. In answer to your questions:
    1. I introduce my main character. – Yes, introduced and picture painted.
    2. I outline the problem my main character has – problem is not having anything to read in class/not being able to write something autobiographical about her family.
    3. Another major character is introduced, both to the protagonist and the reader - Mark
    4. The chapter finishes with a hook that will hopefully leave readers wanting to read on. Yes. I want to know more about Mark and Casey's families. I really like it.

    Is Casey really sad? I get a feeling of deep sorrow – almost a detachment from life. I’m intrigued by Mark, and want to know more of his story.

    Lot of exposition at the beginning - perhaps break it up a little with some dialogue.

    There are a few tells rather than shows for example ‘It’s still very cold’ – is telling us it’s cold, rather than showing. You did a great job showing the classroom and the other students. Casey’s tension was almost palpable in sections, you might be able to expand on how uncomfortable she was.

    ‘I have been thinking about it a lot, and the more I think, the more certain I am that the beginning was long before I ever imagined. Perhaps even before I was born.’ Was she thinking about her assignment – her family? I got a little lost here.

    How relieved was she when Ian didn’t call on her.

    Liked the way you introduced her age - very smooth.

    She read Snowshoes when she was fourteen – this was when she knew she wanted to be a writer. But, when she was twelve she discovered the ‘power of words’ and ‘was hooked. Since then, I’ve written almost compulsively, filling pages and pages with what I’m sure is mostly very bad writing.’ Was it the book that made her want to be a writer or the substitute teacher when she was twelve? Did Snowshoes clarify that writing was what she wanted to do?

    Was this the first time she’d seen Mark? She would have seen him in the class before, right? Or was this the first day of the new semester? How much of an effort was it for her to talk to Mark? If it was so out of character for her – how much guts did it take?

    “Hi Casey.” He smiles. “Have you got time for a coffee?” What was her reply? (Obviously, it was yes.)

    Did they talk on the way to get coffee?

    ‘…thick, evil black coffee they serve here.’ Made me laugh.

  2. Thanks for your comments! I'll discuss them in tomorrow's blog. Now, I'm off to bed.

    Good night!

    X K8