The stillness of the afternoon sits, heavy as a sand bag, on his head and outstretched limbs.
He’s lain under the bridge for hours. His back is still damp from the morning dew, trapped by his mass, while the grass around him has turned brittle in the heat.
This is his favourite place, the best time. Crickets rasp at his ear then flick over him, ants worry his hair. Better than town, the children’s sniggers, the adult’s guarded looks.
Troll, they call him and worse. Beast, Foetus … Abortion. He didn’t know that last one, so he asked Gem at the store who laughed spittle in his face. Gem’s words buzz like flies. Unwanted … Terminated.
A fleshy burn rises inside him, filling his chest and throat. The day fuzzes with tears.
Footsteps on the bridge make him jump. The touch is light, a skip-skip-hop.
Toward the end of this year, I had a particularly inspired time as a short story writer. This was due – in very large part – to the change of seasons.
Autumn and winter days are gloomy and brief, the nights long and forbidding as one of the original Grimm fairy tales (before they censored the really nasty bits). The weather here in the UK is by turns warm, wet and windy, and clear, still and crystal bright with frost.
While the summer inspires me to be outside, writing never feels a more attractive prospect than during the colder months, when there are no butterflies to chase and bees to bother.
And so this autumn I found myself entering several writing competitions*. Okay, it helps that Halloween brings a swollen crop of writing challenges and there’s nothing excites me more than dipping my stubby toe in the murky waters of the dark and the creepy.
The idea for one competition sprang from another favourite past time – television.
The Antiques Roadshow was on the box. For those unfamiliar with the programme, the Roadshow is a BBC staple (it first aired in 1979) which encourages people to raid their attics, empty the contents into the grounds of a stately home and stand for hours in the pouring rain/blazing sun waiting for an expert to tell them their treasure is worthless tat or – very occasionally – that it really is treasure.
The fun comes in watching the reactions of the owners as they hear the news, usually falling into two camps,
The ‘Well-I-love-it-anyway-despite-how-obviously-ugly-and-worthless-it-is’ Camp
The ‘It’ll-stay-in-the-family-despite-being-terrifically-ugly-and-worth-more-than-my-house’ Camp.
Which if you believe them means no one sells anything that’s been valued – ever.
Anyway, we were watching an episode that featured Victorian mourning jewellery made from human hair. Because the Victorians had very different views on death and thought it perfectly acceptable to pop their dead granny down to the photographic studio to have her portrait taken for the album before lopping off her hair and having it woven into a brooch, a watch chain, a ring or even a framed family tree – if there were enough dead relatives to make a tree of course.
Watching this fascinating piece, my writer’s mind wandered …
Along the back streets of Victorian Manchester, to a lace maker down on her luck who one day takes on a rather unusual commission …
Don’t let anyone tell you being away from your laptop/typewriter/notepad is a waste of writing time. Watching TV and films, reading books, going for long walks and communing with bumble bees all have their place in the writers’ life and in feeding your inspiration.
Just make sure you get your bum on a seat afterwards so you can carve a story from those sparks of creativity.
*Of the other three stories I wrote this autumn, I wasn’t placed in one and haven’t yet heard about the others. Watch this space. Or not, because, let’s face it, I’ll only write a post if I win.
Writing novels is a strange way to spend your life.
You take months (in my case, years) working alone on a project then there comes a point – if you want your baby to develop, to grow and not remain swaddled to your over-protective breast forever – when you must push what you’ve made into the world and watch from a safe distance to see if it will fall on its face or walk, perhaps even run.
But what if it manages to both face plant and saunter cockily round the block on the same day?
A few weeks ago, I learned I’d come second in a Writing Magazine competition (more on that nearer publication day). My prize was either a modest amount of cash or a critique of 9,000 words.
Now, as I’m a writer with heaps of artistic integrity and a yearning to polish my craft until I can see my squadgy face in it, I opted for a critique of my Urban Fantasy novel opening.
On Tuesday the critique popped up in my inbox and I avoided reading it for three days.
This was my Schrödinger’s cat moment. I left the email unopened for the same reason it takes me weeks to check the numbers on a lottery ticket – if I don’t look, the unread critique/lottery ticket has the potential to be at once a marvellous review of my talent/worth millions and a hideous rip in my self-esteem/a worthless scrap of paper heading for the recycling bin.
Better not to know, right?
Except of course, wrong. I had to know because otherwise what’s the point in any of it? I opened the document …
And read the most delightful feedback I’ve had in a long while. The opening was engaging, the reader said, the characters realistic and sympathetic. My descriptions were good. I create a sense of mystery and the only thing that she truly found disappointing was not being able to read more.
Now, I’m British. Pretty reserved generally.
I tell you, I was dancing round the kitchen in my slippers after reading that. I fist bumped the air and I’ve never fist bumped anything in my life before.
Filled with renewed self-confidence, I sent a (very polite) follow up email to an agent I sent my chapters to back in August and submitted to three new ones. This could be it. If a professional reader at the UK’s bestselling writing magazine thinks my story has promise, it could be the vehicle that sees me become a published novelist, right?
Towards the end of the afternoon, another email popped into my inbox. From the agent I’d sent my (very polite) follow up to.
After apologising for taking so long to get back to me, she took around a page to say:
That no publishers want Urban Fantasy just now.
That the perspective in the first scene was confusing.
That the premise was too well-trodden to grab her interest.
Basically, that she didn’t think the story was strong enough to sell.
At this point there was not another euphoric little dance around the kitchen. A professional had now told me my story was unoriginal, not good enough to warrant a read in full.
A black hole, a nobbly Hell especially for writers would surely now open up in the lino and swallow me whole. Tiny demons armed with nothing but sharpened quills, reading extracts from Fifty Shades of Grey would poke my eyeballs for all eternity, whispering, If E.L.James can get published, why can’t you?
Of course, this didn’t happen.
Because she also:
Said the mystery at the heart of my story was a strong one.
Said I wrote well.
Actually gave me a personal response, took time to read my submission carefully and gave me guidance on how to improve. And anyone who’s been down the submission route will know that getting any kind of personal response feels like a small win.
So, what have I taken from yesterday?
That writing is utterly subjective. That what one professional enjoys another will not.
That I need to be more adventurous with my story telling, not just thinking outside the box, but climbing out of the box – hell, I just need to burn the bloody box!
And that I can write. I really can.
And for now, that’s all the speck of gold I need to keep me panning for more.
NB For my dear, generous beta readers, Maureen, Chris,Jane, Karen, Sammi, Jane and Lauren, I’m not giving up on finding Caro and Neil a home just yet. And whatever the story’s merits, you’ve helped make it that way. Many thanks again, all of you.
Corrugated iron sheets rusted over the front door, the balcony was crumbling, buttressed by wormy wooden posts. People would retell the story of the day the railing gave way, when metal poles and curlicues pocked the street and concussed Ori the grocer.
Food rotted in the kitchen, the floors rippled with rats and the drains flooded in the annual rains, turning the street into an impassable sewer for weeks.
Still, no town inspector visited. Dajjal was never reported by his neighbours for the stench, the ticks or the occasional outbreak of Weil’s disease.
Instead, they nodded courteously if he was sitting on his front step smoking his evil smelling cigarettes, though each house kept planks by the door to lay over the filth when the street was in flood.
When your neighbour is the Antichrist, you show respect.
It’s just me and dad now, two left out of the five that once made our family. Susie and Jess left within months of Mum dying.
Susie told me it was Dad’s drinking that finally made her leave, the cycle of alcohol and anger and self-recrimination.
Jess never told me why, only that she was going and that she would never return. I remember her expression as she boarded the ferry for the mainland, that mix of shame and sorrow. And relief.
I’ve never blamed my sisters for leaving but I can’t. Dad and I circle each other like boats caught in a whirlpool, pulled by the same forces, unable to separate. Without me he’d sink and without him I’d have to rejoin the world.
Here we drift, trying to stay afloat, wondering when we’ll grow too tired to paddle, waiting to drown.
Written for FFfAW. See the pic, write a tale but don’t forget to read and comment on others. See here to join in.
Another two inches of snow had fallen overnight, a frost following close behind. When Lou finally ventured out, the wooden sledge she used to haul firewood skidded waywardly behind her over the hard surface, while she cracked the ice and sank ankle deep, the snow holding her every footfall.
The cold wants me, she thought, her thigh muscles burning, skirts growing heavier, stiffer.
Not for the first time, she was tempted just to stop, let the snow take her. Take the arthritis swelling knuckles, knees and wrists, take the knocking in her left lung, the ulcer on her ankle that wouldn’t heal no matter how many hawthorn poultices she made.
She stopped a moment, breathless from the wind and effort. The crows were arguing in the tree canopy, great black wings flapping like huge sheets of paper. Somewhere in the future, a black bird waited for her.
But not today.
Tugging the sledge, she headed on.
Written for FFfAW. See the prompt picture, write a tale and share with others. See here for the full rules and to join in.
The anticipation when the object of your desires draws near. The raised heartbeat, the sweating palms, the desire to spend all day, every day in your loved ones company, denying all others. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, all you can think about is them and the next time you’ll be reunited. And when that moment finally comes, when the two of you are alone, slipping between the sheets, your fingers clumsy, hungry to run over those silken pages, to open that glossy cover, to let your eyes feast on what’s inside …
Yes, I’m a fickle soul, but what can I say? The heart wants what it wants.
Recently, I’ve begun a new affair with David Mitchell’s Booker longlisted The Bone Clocks. I’d like to describe to you what it’s about, but I’m only halfway through and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure myself.
There’s a teenage runaway and a predatory, swindling Cambridge undergraduate, a conflict-addicted roving reporter covering the war in Iraq and a supernatural fight between good and evil – I think.
Social commentary, love lost, fantastical horror, life and death and a family wedding – all things that keep the reader engaged.
But it’s Mitchell’s writing that’s drawn me in. Rounded characters, genuine shocks and terrifying threat – both those otherworldly and all to familiar from the evening news – make us care and sympathise for his protagonists, even those who are in the wrong, even as they’re performing the most heinous acts.
To say I’d love to be able to write with his skill and intelligence, handle a range of settings and styles and manage to hold the lot together without it falling into a mess, is an understatement.
Have I found another author to love, another to add to the list and me so damned cynical and middle aged? Perhaps I’ll only know once the last page has turned.
Like love, I don’t know where this story will lead me in the end, but for now I’m just enjoying the ride.
Have you recently discovered a new author to love? Did you think you’d never love again, but found a book that sent your heart a-beating as if you were a teenager in the first throes of bookish passion?