A Life Drawn Freehand

Thsi is Chapter One of my new novel, A Life Drawn Freehand (teaser synopsis at the end)

She sat with a cigarette between her lips, drawing hard like she was sucking the life out of it. But it wasn’t working. Her face was grey, and her lips were grey, and her black hair was matte in the moonlight. She flipped me the pack. I took one and lit up. We sat in silence, gulping smoke into our lungs, and I realised the glowing buds of our cigarettes were the only living things on the boat.

“I’m not cold,” I said.

“You think fucked up thoughts,” she replied, throwing her roach into the river. We listened together for the fizz and then she said, “I guess tonight just forgot to go cold.”

“I don’t want to go back inside.”

“No reason why we should.”

I handed her the last of my smoke. She pulled on it fiercely and I watched the light, doubled in her eyes. It went down into her, deep where her soul should have been, and came back empty.

The cigarette died and there was another fizz on the water. I put my finger tips to her skin, just to the side of her mouth. I felt the depth of the lines and marvelled how the grey-blue twilight made everything shallow. I reached the corner of a crow’s foot and felt her eye twitch. She’d thought it the exact same time as me.

“Let’s go ashore and build a fire,” I said.

She nodded.

We foraged the banks for brush, and when we’d stripped them bare we took an axe to the cabin where the bodies lay. She stood and smoked and watched me chop, and I stood and smoked and watched her carry, and in no time there was a pyre on the bank big enough to take two bodies.

The beginnings of a breeze came off the water and we let it flick their hair while we poured brandy and raised our plastic beakers to them. Then we carried the bodies ashore, one at a time, dangling each between us like a rolled up rug. We laid her body on his and bedded them in scrub.

“L’Chaim!” she said.

“Salut!” I said, and we threw our beakers into the wood, dowsed the brush with the dregs of brandy, tossed in a match and bathed in the flames until they faded to nothing.

Without speaking, we undressed.

We rolled and bit and scratched and screamed and rubbed ashes in our wounds and on our skin.

As our bodies twitched to stillness she took my face in her hands, pulled so hard my cheekbone hurt, and kissed a salt-sweet grainy kiss that lasted till the sun skulked back over the river, and the only sound was the morning’s fingers burning the surface from the water.

We lay there in the early sunlight drawing pictures on each others’ bodies of the things we couldn’t say, in paint made from ashes, tears and come. And when we’d finished the stories of our lives and theirs, we smoked Marlboros till the sun struck noon, and the glowing buds of our cigarettes were the only living things for miles and miles and miles.


When her son Simon dies on a gap year in Egypt, 53 year-old art teacher Ella Hart decides to give her childhood dream of artistic success,  sacrificed for her family, a last roll of the dice. She soon falls in with Solange, an alcoholic ex-model, singer, and punk who persuades Ella to give away literally everything she does for a year.

As Ella’s work and lifestyle begin to win her the attention she has always craved, she embarks on deperate affair with her 16 year-old student, Matthew. Initially excited by Ella’s life in the public gaze, it’s not long before Matthew wants her to himself. As Ella starts to question whether her art or her lifestyle have earned her the world’s attention, Matthew reveals his trump card in the bid to possess her: he offers to take her on a boat trip through the Mediterranean and up the Nile to the place where Simon died. But when Ella insists that Solange come too, it becomes clear only one of them will return.

Told through the eyes of Jack, the disaffected chronicler of Ella’s project, A Life Drawn Freehand examines everything today’s society understands by the word free, dissecting the boundaries between career and vocation, love and jealousy, public and private, art and life; and owes debts to works as disparate as the films Three Colours:Blue and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the novels Sophie’s Choice and Love in the Time of Cholera, and the confessional art of Tracey Emin.

But most of all it’s a love story.

~ by yearzerowriters on January 1, 2010.

34 Responses to “A Life Drawn Freehand”

  1. An excellent hooking in start Dan. Interesting in regards of our authorial versus character’s ‘Voice’ debate, as this is more “Skin Book” than “Songs”, yet indisputably Holloway whichever way you cut it.

    Think the motifs in the first para may need tightening – about heat/ colour/ life, (and lack thereof), so think the consistency between her greyness (colour) and trying to inject life/heat from the ciggy, when maybe it should be the colour from it? The burning red tips as the only colour and light elsewhere work very well (reminded me of fireflies).

    You say the novel will be finished in June? Does this mean you’ve written a good portion of it already, or is that a target you’ve set yourself?


    • Interesting. I think of this as even further from SKIN BOOK than Songs is – it’s my (probably only ever) attempt at an unadulterated love story. The layering and the meaning will be there, but (I hope) utterly submerged and subservient. Which is why I’m interested by the comments on para 1 and will take another look. For me, there are no themes or motifs in this chapter – it’s simply the scene as I saw it – setting up a hook of WHO the bodies are – this, of course, is the end of the story. We spend the rest of teh novel getting there. We know who the narrator is – he’s very like Stingo in Sophie’s Choice, or one of those disaffected Murakami narators – but we don’t know wheher the woman is Ella or Sabrina (and don’t ask – I don’t have the first clue myself, and I doubt I will until the end :))

      I see this as a 50-60k novella. I aim to write the first draft between now and March and give myself two months to rewrite and rewrite 🙂

      Second thoughts, I agree entirely with the point you’re making about para one – but if I talk about injecting heat/colour wouldn’t I be falling into show not tell? Isn’t it there implicitly – the fact that she’s still grey?

      Thank you

      • The themes and the authors you cite are maybe more consistent with Songs, but the style of this opening chap is SkinBook! I merely meant the metaphorical motifs in this section, not across the whole book which of course haven’t been written yet.

        Re grey – yes that would convey it, but I think ‘sucking the life out of it’ cuts right across that by opening up another sensual metaphor other than colour.


  2. There’s some nice writing in here. And the hook works especially well when the piece is read in contrast with the synopsis at the end – we have a love story that begins with the burning of bodies on a pyre by the river! I’m intrigued to learn how we get here and where we go.

    I agree with Marc on the colours/contrasts in the opening paragraphs – this needs some smoothing out. I think fixing the repetition of colours [maybe a simile would work better there?] will go some way in achieving that.

    Also second para, there’s a prob with perspective when narrator’s face flares briefly with the flame.

    I’m intrigued. Good stuff.

    • Thank you so much for reading. I will definitely have a look at that first para.

      I feel a bit mean with the face flaring – when I wrote it I KNEW someone was going to cry “POV” at me, but I left it deliberately. In part because the rhythm works, in part because I think it says something I want to say about transience, but also because I want someone to explain why it’s a perspective problem because I genuinely don’t understand. i did soemthing similar in Songs that was picked up and I couldn’t get to the bottom of it. I’m not saying, or even implying, that Jack sees his face flare up. If I light a match in front of my face, the first thing I thik is that my face flares in its light, and I’m not sure why that’s out of POV – should I focus on temporary heat, perhaps?

      Thank you!

  3. Intriguing, Dan – love the synopsis and great title. The fact that you’re still finding out who the bodies are also interests me – that’s the way I write too – a voyage of discovery. One to watch.

    • Thanks, Tricia. I know you liked the previous opening, but I tried and tried and couldn’t make it go anywhere. With this, I feel like I’m straight “in” and can actually get the book finished in one gulp.

  4. I’m interested to see where you take this & how you go about it.

  5. Ok. I’m hooked! Can’t wait to read on.

    Congrats on a great start to new book, Dan.

  6. I like this, Dan. I like it and am not going to analyse it in any way. You know what you’re doing, and I dig it.
    – Sarah

  7. all i think they mean by the first para is that you could probably split the para and start a new one with “her face was grey…” because it’s a description of the character, rather than a description of her act (cigarette sucking). i look forward to reading more!

    • Thanks, Jenn. I get the first para I think, it’s the “face flaring” and POV shift I’m not sure about.

  8. Ok… I’m in!

    One strange thing is distracting me though: I spent a long time wondering about the boat (how big it was, how close to the shore it was etc. )

  9. There is something a little frightening about this beginning, definitely challenging and heavy with expectation – can’t wait to read more and see where we end up.


  10. I’ve been wondering if writing for the Net imposes its own rhythms and imagery? The pieces that are best received are short and intense. The alternation of light and shade, fortissimo and pianissimo, used by many great novelists, doesn’t seem to work so well? On the other hand, there are some innovations, like marrying images and text, used to great effect on here by Daisy, Marc and Sarah, which work brilliantly on a webpage. Maybe e-books will bring new stylistic developments – literature which doesn’t work so well on the conventional printed page?

    I see Freehand as somewhere between Songs and Skin Books. This is absurdly simplistic, but Songs reads as if it was written on paper to become a printed book, and Skin Books as though it was composed online to be read on a browser (although I know it’s actually being written longhand on recycled paper!) And while SkinBooks is powerfully written, it feels rather ephemeral, as though it has no lasting message. Freehand promises more substance and I really want to read the rest of it.

    • Interesting. I argued quite vigorously in The Schlock ofthe New as I remember that whilst the appearance might change, techj offered nothing new in itself, but you might have a point.

      SKIN BOOK was written mainly to be read out aloud – it’s about sound and rhythm. It sort of has a message – that even the most unloveavble can find love – but I know what you mean. I’m writing another long poem that I hope is more intimate.

      I think of Freehand as even more gentle and “written” than Songs. It’s a love story pure and simple, although it has stuff about free(dom) in it. What I DID realise the other night whilst watching the film again, was just how much it has in common with Three Colours:Blue – I need to make sure I don’t start simply rehashing that (as I may well have done to Norwegian Wood with Songs)

  11. So you still have time to write another novel Dan? You constantly amaze me.
    The synopsis is very intriguing – particularly the riff on ‘free’.

    I like the opening, although at times the style seems a little too poetic to my taste – for instance, the repetition of ‘cherry buds’ might work in a poem, here, to my ears, it jarred.

    A couple of other point – “It went down into her, deep where her soul should have
    been, and came back empty.” – I’m not sure what the ‘it’ references – the cigarette? – and whether the last phrase makes sense.

    “and the only sound was the morning’s fingers burning the surface from the water.” – mixed metaphor, and a bit purple-y.

    Possibly cut the phrase “stories of our lives and theirs” – I don’t think you need it, and it makes the reader wonder just how much tears/ashes/come they’ve got in the paint pot.

    I look forward to more.

    • Always time to write, Roland – I got to “cheat” with SKIN BOOK whilst I was absurdly busy with Year Zero and Free-e-day and got a book out of only writing 2500 words. This year I am only doing Year Zero – and I’m going to put everything I have into teh tour and smart marketing, but what I’ve learned from last year should enable me to do taht in less time. And this story is ready to out, so it’s got to come.

      “It” is the light – I was referring to the way sometimes when someone’s on meds or overtired you can see a reflection of light intheir eyes but it has absolutely no depth or texture – it might as well be seen ina mirror – whereas when a person is alert that reflection is fully 3D. Or maybe it’s just me who looks at lights in people’s eyes when they’re blanked out 🙂

      You’re right about the cut – I could feel the Authonomites going “finished what?” – but that’s the whole point of DIY =- not to have to listen to teh numptyish voices and only listen to teh oens I trust – like you!

      Purply? Hmm. I’ll think. I like the image – but that’s usually a very good reason to get rid of it! Thank you!

  12. ““It” is the light – I was referring to the way sometimes when someone’s on meds or overtired you can see a reflection of light intheir eyes but it has absolutely no depth or texture – it might as well be seen in a mirror – whereas when a person is alert that reflection is fully 3D.”
    – It makes sense when you articulate it like that, Dan. Maybe “where her soul should have been” is just a little OTT and unnecessary – the image itself says it perfectly.

    • yes – fewer rather than more as always. I used a similar image in chapter one of Songs I think – it took me about ten drafts to cut down from a whole para to just say Yang’s eyes were black.

  13. It’s very difficult to do what you’re doing, Dan, which is to share work at an early stage – as you did with Agnieszka. Lately, I’ve been trying to write “shitty first drafts” (please!) so that I don’t get sucked into polishing work when the structure is wrong, and the piece should be scrapped. Once you decide to post, it’s hard not to work on a piece?

  14. Yes – that’s an interesting point, Larry. I was assuming that Dan would just want general reaction to the the story at this point and detailed crit later once that’s worked out. How do you see this Dan? I know with Agnieszka you specifically said you’d post then work on it at particular points.

    • Tricia, Larry, it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder what I was after, either – I posted this to show people what I was going to be up to for the next few months. I really wasn’t expecting feedback – what I’ve received is more than I could have dreamed of.
      What i’m going to be posting on a regular basis is largely poetry – pasages of Freakshow, probably – which is my other project at the moment – the one I staretd on twitter the other day.
      Larry, it’s incredibly helpful for me to post things early on when they’re rubbish to make myself do better. 100% NOT out of disrespect to readers – rather the opposite – to remindmyself what I have left to do to give them the best story I can. I very much think we have to lay ourselves bare at our weakest (why I love Tracey Emin so much) – it’s like the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s calves that I must have told you all before.
      Thank you!

      • This is such an important post, because the thing that stands in the way of creativity for many of us is the old enemy – ego. Why people in the West think you need a strong ego in order to be a writer is beyond me – it’s the giant on the path, waiting to be slain.

        I don’t know the story of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s calves.

  15. I realise now my comments might have been inappropriate – I guess I’m too used to The Shed – so apologies if I’m talking out of turn.

    Yes, it’s a bold thing to do to put work up at an early stage and there is always a danger it all gets overwhelmed by nitpicking.

    • Never inappropriate – like absolute gold dust!!! I just don’t want anyone to feel obligated to start critting – taht’s all I meant!

  16. The process of writing and how people differ in their approaches is always fascinating, isn’t it? Dan’s one of the few people brave enough to really put himself out there in terms of WIP. I quite like crit as I go along, but I guess for some people it would kill things. It is like gold dust to have good critiquers though, so good on you, Roland. 😉

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