Writing Exercise IV: Character, Event, Setting

On the final day of the workshop we did an exercise that was almost like a party game in its randomness: Each of us wrote down a character, an event and a setting on separate pieces of paper. As expected, these were then randomly distributed around the class. When all the dust had settled, I had been given the plot of LOST: A caring nurse, at the end of the world, on an island.

I decided to write a piece set in a story world I’m sort of working on (tentatively called The Plague Wards). The evaluation piece I’d submitted for the workshop was actually set in this world, and the consistent feedback I’d gotten was that the main character was pretty flat. Part of fleshing her out involves working out her background, so I decided to write this piece about her mother.



Before her shift starts Mary goes to the washroom and washes her hands twice: Once after she exits the cubicle, and once after she’s fixed her hair. When she first started work here, she found she liked the smell of the hospital soap. It had floral notes that reminded her of something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Something happy.

She pulls blue latex over her freshly-scented fingers as her shift partner preps the charts & meds. Even with the frown distorting her face Su comes off as so young, so pretty. Mary catches herself thinking about what groceries to buy for dinner. She forgot. She forgot about the quarantine.

Su draws in a sharp breath and her lips compress. “What happened?” Mary asks, although from the lines building up around Su’s eyes she can guess at what it is.

“We have one less patient today.”

“Oh? Which one?” This, she can’t guess, since so many of them are on the brink.

She leans over to look at the screen on the pushcart, but Su answers before she can read it. “The old man in ward 57.”

The old man in Ward 57, Mr Lim, is Patient Zero’s father. She will wake from her coma – if she wakes from her coma – to find her father dead. Mary exhales.

Su’s face crumples, suddenly: It’s like tissue paper tearing through, these breakdowns. Mary has become used to them, so much that whenever she feels her own face form those same shapes, she knows what to do to force everything back in. She hugs Su, gripping her heaving shoulders with her flower-scented, latex-wrapped fingers.

“There’s no cure,” Su says. “The Government can’t help us. Everybody here is going to die.” Her words rise and fall, like fish struggling against a stream’s current.

Mary keeps her shoulders straight and her voice firm as she looks Su in the eye. “No, the cure is coming,” she says. “Listen, Su: Listen. Don’t worry. My daughter, you know Yann? She works for the Government, she’s in Buona Vista, and she says they’re going to find it. They’re already halfway there. It’s only a matter of time. It’s coming.”

“Not in time for Mr Lim.”

Mary tightens her grip on Su’s shoulders. “But we can still save other people.” A trite statement, but maybe one she needed to hear.

“Yeah, ok,” Su says. She’s already drying her eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m just so tired.”

“We’re all tired. It’s normal, don’t blame yourself.”

Su gives her a watery smile. She looks like a washcloth that’s been rinsed too many times. Mary wonders if Yann’s tired too, staying up in her lab with its lights & petri dishes and rows of chemicals, trying to make sense of what they are saying.

“I’m ok,” Su says. “Let’s go.”

They walk down the corridor towards the wards. Here, there and everywhere, everything smells like antiseptic, sprayed madly on to cover a stench.


Writing Exercise III: Time & Narrative

We were working on issues of time in a narrative, and how to handle it. The task was to think of an event, and then pick one time point – 2 days before, 10 minutes before, 10 minutes after, 1 day after, or 1 year after – and expand on it.

I had originally wanted to write about a car accident or a plane crash or something equally disastrous, but then I realised I still wanted some sort of human conflict to play with, in which case would my event be the disaster or the thing which happened between the people? In the end I went with something completely different. I picked the timepoint of the day after.

She can’t find a dry bench to sit on and she isn’t wasting tissue to do the public service of wiping them dry, so she squats on one of them to eat breakfast. She keeps her knees together so she doesn’t look like a coolie; still, she feels the shaming gazes of passing joggers trained on her, all too apparent in the way their legs slow, measured gaits stumbling, as they pass her by.

She’s barely halfway through the McDonald’s meal when the burning in her thighs becomes unbearable. Still, she chews as slowly as she possibly can. Because finishing breakfast would mean having to put the wrappers away and crumpling the plastic bags and then finding a dustbin to put them in, and then– and then what? Maybe she can take a shower again but she doesn’t want to, and her towel will take ages to dry, she knows that now. She could get on a bus and go to town. Stay in air-conditioning, find a library, read a book. Her heart soars at the thought: It’s free, it’s all free. The 200 dollars in her wallet no longer feels like a stone weighing in her pocket, her conscience– more like a shallow dish of water she has to hold on to carefully, so carefully.

The moment she takes the last bite of her hashbrown her phone rings in her pocket and she nearly jumps off the bench. She lets it vibrate for several rings while her heart pounds. She wants to believe it’s Jo, regretting her freakout of the night before, saying it’s ok, you can stay with me, you can sleep on the floor. She doesn’t want to think it’s her mother, trying to say, Look, we’ll talk about this later, please just come home.

The phone goes silent before she can pick it up and she lets out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. The phone, too, would be out of battery soon. She crushes the hashbrown wrapper in her hands and puts it in the plastic bag. Gathering them up like they are the most precious things in the world, she hops off the bench drying in the rising sun.

Writing Exercise II: POV

So we did another writing exercise for class. We were playing with POV this time – first persson, third person etc. The exercise was to tell someone else in the class about a neighbour we had, and listening to their story in turn. Then we’d go away to write a story about the neighbour we’d just heard about. My attempt, to tell the story of Rebecca’s neighbour (whom she hardly ever sees  and has never spoken to, so this is all made up.)

The car had belonged to the old man. It was a Nissan Sunny, bought back in a year when Nissan was content to be seen as that plain and reliable friend you had, the one who could be relied on to get enough sleep and file all their taxes on time. It was a particularly ugly shade of green. The old man had personally handpicked it from the lineup of muddy coloured squares in the showroom.

His mother used to nag him about it. The car, you haven’t washed it yet, right? The engine oil needs to be changed, must send for inspection soon, right? The car, it hasn’t been moved in a long time, right? And he would nod, nod, nod, take the car out for short drives like a pet dog, water it with the hose along with the drooping plants that passed for a garden in their house. He used to wonder why they didn’t sell it after his father died. After all, it was his father’s car. Maybe no-one wanted to buy it.

These days the car sits silent in the driveway, collecting a coat of dust for itself. He doubts he can move it anymore, the wheels sagging over spotty rims one sharp kick away from crumbling. He can see its silhouette where he sits in the darkened living room, slowly breathing air circulated by an uninterested ceiling fan, where the TV yammers on and on with its constant stream of light and sound. He imagines the unkempt garden growing up around the car, tendrils of grass pulling it into an embrace until it vanishes into the foundations of the house.

And then we had to write the same story from another character’s perspective. I chose a different point of view for this one, as well.

The house opposite is always very quiet. Other houses on this road, they always have people coming in and out. But this house nobody visits. Not even during Chinese New Year. Ma’am says that last time, when the old man was still around, people would still come, his nephews or something like that. But now, nobody. When I started working here, there was the old woman and her son, but then the old woman died. That’s what my ma’am says. Very strange, you know — there was no funeral. But you don’t see the old woman around any more, so I think she died. Then the son never leaves the house. I think he has no job. Last time, he will still take the car out, but now, no more. No wife, no girlfriend, I think his life is very sad. I don’t know why he doesn’t sell his house and buy a HDB flat. His house is so big, it’s too big for only one person– if it’s me, I will go crazy.

Writing exercise I: Observation

At the moment I’m attending a three-day novel-writing masterclass organised by the local branch of the British Council. Yesterday our themed writing exercise was to make observations of people at lunch, something about what Chekhov wrote in his notebook. It was an exercise in detail, except that it being lunch I found more interest in the detail of my food…


Heavy-waisted and large-bottomed, she stood fixing her hair while her baby played at her feet with dusty hands and knees.

The old man hadn’t bought any food. He sat at the table in the furthest corner of the alfresco terrace, thumbing through a dog-eared newspaper.

She had on a slinky dress monogrammed in gold, and her dark glasses hid half her face. But her gait meandered across the courtyard and her voice piped up and down as she spoke over the phone.