We’re currently midway through a test run of our brand-new Starting to Write Your Novel online course, a six-week course designed to kickstart a novel into life. If you’ve seen our Starting to Write My Novel blog – dedicated to detailing the evolution of this newest of CBC’s online writing courses – you may know that prior to launch, we invited a handful of Curtis Brown Creative alumni to test the course for us – this allowed us to weed out any bugs there might be as well as to make sure our former students weren’t letting their writing fall by the wayside. As part of the Starting to Write Your Novel course, students are asked to post their responses to weekly tasks on our course forum for their coursemates to see, with the promise that one outstanding student every week will be awarded a book, and that some work would be featured on our blog. To make sure our course testers got the authentic Starting to Write Your Novel experience, we’ve decided to stand by our word.
Week Two’s topic was Inspiration and Ideas, and for one of the tasks that week, course tutor Anna Davis gave students introductory sentences and tasked them with using one to free-write a short piece. Here are a couple of samples from our test cohort that impressed us:
Will was afraid of silence.
Silence was death. Silence was the dawn before the Morning Hate when the sky filled with ribbons of pink and blue and gold, and the gunners threw shells into the cold breaches of their six inchers and their eight inchers a quarter of a mile behind the front, ready to advance the barrage line forward, yard by terrible yard. Silence was the bloom of mud on the ridge he must tuck himself so close behind that he will surely feel the concussive force of each explosion in his teeth, in the cartilage of his nose. Or it was the gas, ours or theirs, that crept up through the wire in no man’s land on a Tuesday lunch time and poured down into the trenches, and it was the moment before the whistle sounded between the dry lips of the second lieutenant when they were expected to give it back to them, and now he was drawing breath ready to blow on it again.
Will was afraid of silence.
Silence was memory. It was the space between his father’s words as he dismissed the news of Will’s enlistment, and it was the tracks of his mother’s tears as she gripped him at the door the day he left for France. Silence was the dark spaces in the chancel and the lady’s chapel of the church snuggled in at the foot of the Downs that were filled with rising pockets of dust and the organ’s final, triumphant blast. It was the abstract terror he felt building up inside him as he stood, just him and the priest, at the altar, unable to even turn and glimpse the door behind them half open and the sun falling across the memorial stones that chequered the floor but no sign of Alice.
Will was afraid of silence.
Silence was worse than any bombardment, worse than any stinking dugout, worse than his father’s embittered words, worse than any whistle blast.
Will was afraid.
Outside my house there’s a man in a blue car. He has been there for seventeen minutes; I’m counting. The kettle I boiled has cooled back down, the teabag is dry in the cup, I stare through the window. At this time of morning the air is dim, so the Astra’s windows mostly reflect the streetlamps, but through the glass I can make out a figure in shadow. One hand is at his forehead, pinching the temples.
He opens the driver door but I stay at the window. Staring people down is a skill I learned through years of facing the police on protests. You can’t show you’re scared, that’s when they get out the water cannon.
The car door slams behind him, he doesn’t lock it. Instead he walks towards my house in a dark grey coat buttoned up to the neck. It’s Brodie, I realise. He looks so different cleaned up.
On the front path he stares at me through the window. I glance from him to the car and back; he must know there’s a chance that someone will steal it. A powder blue car, it looks second-hand. Where has he got it from? Did they issue him with it?
Eventually I walk to the door. My limbs are stiff and I have to work hard to move them. I am suddenly aware that I am only in a T-shirt and pyjama trousers, and shivering I wonder how underfed I look. When I open the door Brodie stands at the threshold, nervous. Beneath his eyes the skin is red and wrinkled, like fingertips in the shower, and it’s only because of this that I let him inside.
In the hallway he starts to cry.
‘Shh,’ I say. ‘Everyone else is asleep.’
Determined not to comfort him, I gesture towards the kitchen, where we stand beside the sink and I reboil the kettle. I take a second mug and teabag down. Brodie puts his head in his hands and his shoulders shake but he makes no sound. Obedient, or perhaps well-trained. I keep two steps away from him and fill his mug and pour in milk; I leave the bag in, the top of it poking out.
‘Tea,’ I whisper. ‘I left in the bag.’ I’m about to say, ‘the way you like it,’ but then I realise I don’t know Brodie at all. Perhaps that’s just what he was told to say. Perhaps everything was him creating a character.
He takes the tea and looks at me. He’s close-shaven now, and I feel nostalgic for the sandy beard with ginger at the jawline. He is paler, too, but so am I. Those years of camps and die-ins and working outside: they kept his skin light gold, they gave me freckles. Now we’re just like everyone in London.
He wipes his nose with the back of his wrist. ‘You let me in,’ he says.
‘I thought you might ignore me.’
‘I nearly did.’
He smiles in gratitude. ‘Can I talk to you?’
I sigh and gesture to the chairs at the breakfast bar. As we’re taking our seats a car comes down the street, slow and quiet. I flinch and look round.
‘It’s not them.’
‘How do you know?’
The car goes past and I deliberately stare at it; if it’s the police then let them have a full shot of my face.
‘Col. Please. Look at me.’
I imagine throwing myself at him, scalding him with the rest of the kettle, beating my fists against his face. But I know in reality I don’t feel that way. I just feel sad that we can no longer be who we were.
‘You shouldn’t have come,’ I say. ‘The court case–’
‘I know. I just. I wanted to explain.’
‘You’ve explained. It was in the papers.’
‘Not about that.’
I shake my head. ‘I don’t want an explanation. I’ll get some therapy when I’m rich or something.’
He doesn’t laugh, just looks at me wanting forgiveness. I can smell him: aftershave and deodorant. I think of all the times the two of us went straight from the garden to the attic, how even his armpits tasted somehow of earth; Christmas, soaking figs in port, when he spilled it down his jumper and stank all day; that freezing shower we shared on retreat, his skin reddening as he slapped water over his chest.
I stare at the lino. ‘You found me,’ I say. ‘So the police know where I live.’
He nods apologetically.
‘Are they following all of us, then?’
He shrugs. ‘Most.’
‘Does that mean they know where Silja is?’
He stands. ‘Col. I came to explain.’
‘What about Mae?’
‘I can’t tell you about them.’
‘I just want to know how they are,’ I say, and my voice cracks. I realise that my body is shaking, and I hug myself for a second, but it only makes me look thinner and so I stop.
‘If you’re not going to listen,’ he says, ‘I’m going to leave.’
His tongue is pressing his bottom lip; I can see the cracked tooth he broke on the march. So that at least was real.
‘Maybe you’re wearing a wire,’ I say, ‘maybe you were sent to push me until I said something.’
‘Col – no – they don’t. I’m – you’ve read the papers.’
I shrug. ‘I know I can’t trust you now. But… If you tell me how they are. If you prove to me they’re safe and well and happy. I’ll listen to what it is you want to tell me.’
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.