Tag Archives: short stories

Flash! Friday – ‘Unforeseen’

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon, promotional still from 1936.  Public domain photo, sourced at flashfriday.wordpress.com

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon, promotional still from 1936.
Public domain photo, sourced at flashfriday.wordpress.com

Unforeseen

It’s there, in my mind, like a weed. This was too easy.

She’s never left the cage unlocked before. Not even for her cigarette breaks, or to eat – though she doesn’t eat much, now. But this morning she rose from her desk, mid-sentence, a ribbon of smoke rising from her ashtray, and left the room.

My cage stood open.

I ran, of course. Who wouldn’t? It’s not that she mistreats me, but captivity is a torment. I’m a free spirit. I’m –

Oh, Zeus. She’s coming! It’s been so long since I was loose that I can’t remember where I am, or where to go. I must hide! But she keeps me in rags, barefoot, and anyway I may not leave this dwelling. Separated from her, I will die. Is that irony? I should know.

Every writer needs a Muse, and I am hers, soul-bound. She doesn’t need to cage me, but she can’t trust me to stay.

I reach a dead end. I turn, desperate, but she is behind me.

There you are,’ she croons. ‘Enjoy your run? Had to get your blood up, somehow. You’ve really been underperforming lately.’ Her smile is a sudden blade.

Ah, me. My fatal flaw? Plot twists have long been my undoing.

***

So – yay! This piece of flash fiction has taken me *hours* to complete, but hey. I finished it. It’s mine! I did it! It’s been so long since I entered any sort of flash fiction competition that I half-expected never to complete a piece again, so I’m glad I proved myself wrong. My old brain cells aren’t firing on full power, as is clear from the Titanic struggle this story caused within me, but heck. A challenge ain’t a challenge if it ain’t hard, right?

So. You’re going to head on over to Flash! Friday and throw your name in the ring, right? You’re not going to leave me hanging? Good friends don’t do that sort of thing. Go on. Go on. Go on, go on, go on, you will, you will, go on…

Titchy Tales

Photo Credit: johnb/Derbys/UK. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: johnb/Derbys/UK. via Compfight cc

Consecrated Ground

The freezing mist settled on the humps and hollows of the land. She’d known cold days here before, but somehow it had seemed bearable, then. This new coldness had a blade in it.

The old house still stood, but another family lived there now. Another mother who’d looked her in the eye with kindness, a father who’d clutched her hand in his.

Her grand-daughter lent an arm as they set foot into the field, and she knew, immediately, what the Bible meant when it said ‘his blood cries to you from the soil.’ She fought the urge to sink to her knees and lose herself in the rich black loam. The cold dark earth.

Her grand-daughter was speaking; praying, probably. She didn’t hear. Her mind was with the memory of her husband, carrying three of his children out here into his own field, burying them with his own hands. He’d filled their graves with his tears.

Lost before they’d lived, the priest said they’d never see Heaven. Unbaptised, unwanted by God, there could be no burial, no Mass, no requiem. No rest, and no eternity.

Their tiny faces lost to her memory, and their bones to the land.

Photo Credit: subarcticmike via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: subarcticmike via Compfight cc

The Long Step

Pablo knew his time had come, at last. In truth it had come years before, but nobody had wanted to take his hand and lead him to the mountain.

Nobody wanted to say goodbye.

But is wife had been gone so long that only the oldest children remembered her. The sickness had eaten her, and she’d chosen to take the Long Step early.

Pablo had no dependents now.

And so, one morning, he took his silent leave. He dressed simply, bringing only his stick. He slowly climbed the mountain road, savouring the air and the sky and the birdsong, the tang of sore muscles, the thump-thumping of his old heart.

Finally, he reached the end. The Long Step beckoned, out into eternity.

One final breath, and then…

Peace enfolded him, like a closing eye.

Surprised, the women at the mountain’s foot ran to catch the floating baby, newly reborn.

‘Who was due to Step today?’ they asked, but nobody knew.

The Great Escape

‘Faster, dammit!’ Her voice was raspy with sand and dry air. ‘I’ll leave you behind, nephew or no nephew!’

Cleve flung himself flat on his horse’s neck, hoping he wasn’t whipping it hard enough to hurt. He opened his dusty eyes and peered back at his aunt, tearing along behind him astride her huge black charger. She looked as raddled and sweaty as he felt. The sandy dunes, peppered with their horses’ hoofprints, soared above them.

‘Aw, c’mon, Elsie!’ he yelled back. ‘Herbert’s going as fast as he can! Plus, we’re carrying the loot, don’t forget!’ His aunt bared her teeth, giving her horse a savage kick. She was almost level with him now.

‘They’re catching up, Cleveland!’ she screamed. ‘And you know what that means!’

‘They’re in a balloon, Elsinore!’ he shouted. ‘How fast can they even go in that thing?’

As if in reply, a searing red light filled their vision. Elsie swore loudly as a huge rock above their heads, heated instantly to explosion point, shattered into shards all around them. The horses screamed, and Cleve watched as the huge silver balloon peeked over the horizon.

Elsie leaned in and smacked him across the head.

‘It’s not the balloon I’m worried about, boy!’ she yelled. ‘Ride!’

**

These are tales you may have seen before, if you’ve assiduously followed my ‘career’ on Flash! Friday. The first tale, ‘Consecrated Ground’, was my first entry for Flash! Friday, almost two years ago. It was one of the first pieces of flash fiction I ever wrote, back when the genre was brand-new to me; I still think it works, but perhaps that’s just my fond remembrance. ‘The Long Step’ was written at the start of this year, and ‘The Great Escape’ (which probably owes a little to the movie ‘Cowboys and Aliens’) was first posted in April of 2013.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little stroll down Memory Lane, and that these stories might inspire you to seek out your own prompt images, set your own word limits and create some new and fascinating titchy tales – it could be the best thing you’ll ever do for your writing.

Scary Stories

This is going to be a hard blog post to write, not because I don’t feel strongly about the subject matter or care about what I’m going to say, but because I don’t want to identify anyone as I go. Let me just state at the outset, then, that the observations I want to make here relate to a general impression I have received lately, and I don’t want (and don’t intend) to make reference to any one person or piece of writing in what follows. (Also, this post is possibly triggering for violence, domestic violence and violence against women, though I’ve tried not to be too graphic, of course).

Photo Credit: olemartin via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: olemartin via Compfight cc

So.

Over the last while, I’ve read several stories which take as their central focus the relationship between women and men. In general, they do not end well. The stories deal with rejection, and pain, and humiliation, and often they deal with death, sometimes self-inflicted. Some of them describe adult relationships, by which I simply mean ‘relationships between an adult woman and an adult man’; some of them describe relationships between teenage characters. In all cases, the stories were written by men.

I have read stories about young men being tormented by young women, made to feel ashamed and guilty for their romantic feelings, humiliated for expressing their softer emotions. I have read stories about college-age men being rejected by a woman in whom they were interested who then go on to take their own lives. I have read stories about men who feel used as playthings by unfeeling women who then take out their anger on one another.

And I have read a story about a man who murders a woman, simply because he can, and even as she lies dead on the floor he appraises the woman’s figure and attractiveness, and describes it for the reader.

I confess to feeling upset and slightly angered by these stories. Of course, I am the first to say that if writing something down makes a writer feel better, or if it expresses something deep within them, or if they feel they have something to say with the story they’re writing, then by all means they must write it. I don’t want to censor anyone’s creativity and I feel writing is a vital part of expressing what makes us human.

But, nevertheless.

These stories worry me.

They worry me because I’m afraid that the men who write them are basing them on their own experiences, and that they feel there’s nowhere else to express how they feel. They worry me because they echo so much else about our culture that worries me: misogyny in music videos; violence against women in computer games; women being seen as objects in magazines and newspapers and everywhere else you care to look; the rise of things like the men’s rights movement, which has sprung – in my opinion – from a profound misunderstanding of what feminism is about. They worry me because men, even some of those whom I love and hold dear, sometimes express ways of thinking about women which seem to me to be dangerous, reductive and upsetting, and the ways in which men and women interact in our world seems to me to be deeply out of balance. They worry me because, as stories, they are not questioning or interrogating or investigating the gender balance; they are not saying anything by making use of tropes of violence or abuse. They are simply describing what it feels like to be hurt, to be humiliated, to feel powerless – and how it feels to express your rage, whether it’s by causing injury to yourself, or a ‘lesser’ man, or a woman. One story in particular seemed to luxuriate in the destruction caused to the person of a female character, and I freely admit it disturbed me.

And here’s the thing: I’m a person who has read (and loved) Bret Easton Ellis’s masterpiece American Psycho, among others. I am not a prude, or someone whose finer sensibilities are thrown out of whack by a little blood. I am a person who has read, and relished, stories about men, women and violence – if they are saying something, at least something more nuanced than ‘this is how it feels to beat someone to death.’ American Psycho is a detailed and brilliant deconstruction of Western consumer culture, and it is skilfully created to allow the reader to both be and despise the serial killer Patrick Bateman, while at the same time constantly questioning whether he is even a reliable narrator – are his murders actually happening, or is he merely fantasising about them? In my opinion, it’s a work of genius, and while I understand you can’t compare a short story to a full-length novel, it should still be possible to express deeper thinking in a short story. A story about a man murdering a woman (or, indeed, a person of any gender murdering another person of any gender) should be about something else as well as merely a murder: it should be an artistic statement, an allegory, an image, a means of satire, a vehicle for expressing a deeper truth about human nature and/or society, and this is no easy thing to do. It takes a writer of unusual skill to pull off something so sophisticated.

If a story is simply about a man killing a woman, luxuriating in the detail, then to me it’s frightening, and it lingers on the border of voyeurism. If (as I’ve also come across recently, far too often) a story is about a man to whom everything comes easy, and who can have any woman he wants at the snap of a finger, and in which women are seen as mere dolls who exist purely for the pleasure of the narrator, then I’m afraid they hold no interest for me. Unless the author is skilled enough to use these tropes to make a statement about something larger, then stories like this blur the line into pornography, and there’s enough of that in the world already.

Thoughts? Am I over-thinking? Am I – even without meaning to – imposing my own values upon others? Am I guilty of censorship? I’d love to know what you make of this.

 

 

First, Find a Hat…

Submitting a novel takes a certain amount of focus and effort. It takes time, and brain-space, and most, if not all, of your guts. It doesn’t, in short, leave you a lot of time to do other things, like enter competitions or submit stories to literary magazines, which is a shame; those things are important.

It’s hard to even write a short story, though, when you feel like this:

The lemon, that is. Not the hand. Image: catalysttrainingsystems.ca

The lemon, that is. Not the hand.
Image: catalysttrainingsystems.ca

Sometimes, however, you’ve just got to tell that Muse who’s boss, and get her to start pulling her weight. If you were to wait until you felt in the fullness of your mental and physical health and/or everything in your life was shiny before you put pen to paper, you’d never write anything.

So, in that undaunted spirit, this week I’m beginning the process of submitting work to magazines and competitions afresh. I’ve just stuck my head above the parapet to check out the landscape, and realised I’ve missed a load of deadlines, which is a shame.

But, as is always the case, where one deadline passes another five sprout up to take its place, so there’s never a need for sorrow.

I have compiled a short list of competitions and/or submission opportunities (not exhaustive, just so you know: other opportunities are available!), mainly to help myself to stay focused but also to aid anyone else who might find themselves in the mood to throw their hat into the ring.

Artist: Bill Watterson Comic: Calvin and Hobbes Image sourced: helenlevel3writing.wordpress.com

Artist: Bill Watterson
Comic: Calvin and Hobbes
Image sourced: helenlevel3writing.wordpress.com

Competitions

Mslexia Women’s Short Story Competition

The Skinny: Stories can be up to 2,200 words, and so long as they’ve never been published before (and they’re written in English), they can be on any subject. Entry costs £10 (sterling) and should be accompanied by a cover sheet, downloadable from the Mslexia website. First prize is £2,000 plus publication in a forthcoming issue of Mslexia.

The Complicated Bits: You have to be a woman to enter, and the closing date is next Monday, March 17th. So, get your skates on!

The Molly Keane Creative Writing Award

The Skinny: Entry is free, and there’s no restriction on the style or length of the short story submitted. You need to download an entry form from the Waterford County Council website and submit it with your story to the Waterford County Arts Office. Peachy.

The Complicated Bits: Entry closes this Friday, March 15th. Sorry about the late notice.

The Moth International Short Story Prize 2014

The Skinny: Stories can be up to 6,000 words, and must be original and not published elsewhere. A €9 entry fee allows you to enter one story, and you may enter as many stories as you like. The closing date isn’t until June 30th, which is good. You can find the rules here, and a link to online entry here. Go on, go on, go on.

The Complicated Bits: There aren’t any, really. Get on it.

The Bridport Prize

The Skinny: Bridport offers a smorgasbord of options. There’s a flash fiction competition (stories up to 250 words); a short story competition (stories up to 5000 words) and a poetry competition (poems up to 42 lines.) A variety of entry fees apply, and you should probably check out the rules, over here. Bridport offers great prizes, and wonderful exposure should you win, or be shortlisted.

The Complicated Bits: Winning is difficult, as the world and his mother tends to enter this competition. It’s reputable, popular and well worth entering, but there’ll be stiff competition. Just so you know.

MMU Novella Award

The Skinny: Have you written, or are you writing, a novella of between 20,000 and 40,000 words? Then, this is the competition for you. The prize is £1,000 plus publication, and the closing date is May 23rd, and the entry fee is £15. So long as you’re over 16 and writing in English, you’re good to go.

The Complicated Bits: Ain’t none. Well, assuming you have a novella in the works, that is. I don’t, so for me it would be nigh-on impossible. For you, though, it may be just the ticket.

Criminal Lines

The Skinny: If you’re a writer of crime, suspense or thriller novels, then listen up. A.M. Heath, an excellent agency, is looking for an unagented, unpublished crime author for their Criminal Lines prize. Amazingly, the novel you enter doesn’t even have to be finished – but you need to have a clear plan in place for the story. The prize is £1,000, but – better than that – you get to chat to some of A.M. Heath’s super-agents about your work. So, it’s well worth giving this a go if you’re the next Henning Mankell. Details are available over here.

The Complicated Bits: There aren’t any, so long as you have a twisty, nefarious brain which cooks up deliciously dark stories. I don’t. So, um. Good luck, though!

Image: avajae.blogspot.com

Image: avajae.blogspot.com

Submissions

There are literally millions of places to submit your work. Millions. I’m throwing out a few that are on the top of my head, for various reasons, but the following list is by no means complete.

ESCzine

A fabulous wee e-zine which is well worth checking out. They’re looking for submissions for their fifth issue, closing date April 30th.

Number Eleven Magazine

Possibly the most beautiful literary magazine in the ‘verse. Send them in your stuff, and maybe you’ll see it lovingly and gorgeously reproduced.

Story Shack Magazine

The best thing about this magazine is the fact that not only will you see your story in print if it’s accepted, but you’ll also be paired with an illustrator who’ll bring your vision to life.

The View From Here

Edgy and interesting, ‘The View From Here’ is a great place to stop off if you’ve some free time and fancy a read, and also if you have a slightly strange short story looking for publication. Give them a go.

Metazen

Pretty. Great stories. Wonderful ethos. Check them out!

wordlegs

wordlegs’ remit is wide – they accept poetry, short stories and flash fiction. And they’re lovely people.

The Bohemyth

You can’t go wrong with The Bohemyth. Always worth a read, and wonderfully produced. As far as I know, their submissions window is always open.

***

Wherever you choose to send your work, good luck. I hope to see you on a winners’ podium, or in print, in the near future. With any luck, I’ll be there with you. Always remember you have nothing to lose by submitting work to competitions (well, besides a small sum of money, sometimes!); every competition will make you a better writer. And – needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway – never give up.

 

 

Is It Friday Yet?

Man.

This has been a long, hard week – in so many ways. Reality (boo hiss!) has prevented me from doing as much writing as I’d like, and the writing I have done has been execrable nonsense. No – really.

As proof, let me proffer the following.

I laboured for hours yesterday on a piece of flash fiction which I had intended to submit to a prestigious competition. Its closing date? Today. Yeah. Not so clever.

Image: kotaku.com

Image: kotaku.com

Normally, my internal ‘deadline widget’ would keep me from making such a colossal mess-up, but for whatever reason it was on the fritz this week, and so things started to get on top of me. Anyway, after all the hard work of producing this piece of flash – and, for a while, I genuinely thought it was okay – I read it over this morning and realised that it literally makes no sense. None whatever. As well as that, the stuff that happens in it is physically impossible – which I know doesn’t really matter, because it’s a story. However, when the crux of what you’re writing hangs on something that couldn’t actually happen in reality, and the story relies on the events taking place just as they would in reality, then you’ve got a problem.

So, as you can imagine, there’s been plenty of wailing and tooth-gnashing this morning, and the day hasn’t even begun properly.

It hasn’t been helped by the fact that today’s Flash! Friday prompt was cruelly complicated.

image: batoto.net

image: batoto.net

All in all, I wonder if today’s one of those days which should just be rebooted. Shame I can’t just Ctrl+Alt+Del and get on with things in a better and more sensible universe.

Anyway.

So, today’s Flash! Friday required element was ‘Vendetta’ – not the word, but the concept. The prompt image was as follows:

Image: en.wikipedia.org (entry: Rosie the Riveter)

Image: en.wikipedia.org (entry: Rosie the Riveter)

And the following wee bitty tale is what I made out of all that prompty goodness.

Top Secret

I watched them, all three, huddled over Marcia’s workbench. My little buddies. Joe and his fan-club. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

‘C’mon!’ he urged. The glow of Marcia’s torch threw them into sharp relief. Carla was – I guessed – supposed to be on watch, but as always when she got close to the action, she forgot herself.

‘It looks swell,’ she said, with a low laugh. ‘Real swell, Joe!’

I took a step closer, thankful for my rubber-soled shoes. I could see the little hairs curling on the back of Carla’s neck now, smell the tang of her sweat. The torch’s hiss covered my approach.

My project – my pipework – lay on Marcia’s bench. She was welding something to the front of it. Something obscene. Something which would’ve gotten me fired.

I sighed.

I should’ve just let Joe do what he wanted, that time. Touch me. Take me.

My throat tightened.

I raised the wrench, planted my stance, and took aim.

**

I guess the fact that I managed to get a story (one I’m happy with, too) out of a pair of fiendishly complicated prompts should make me feel a bit happier about my labours. It doesn’t make up for  yesterday’s silliness, but I suppose it’s all about the horizon, isn’t it. No point looking back. Keep going. Stiff upper lip (whatever that means.)

And, thank custard, it’s Friday. Next week I’m going to be machine-like in my efficiency and productivity. I can feel it.

Happy weekend, all y’all. And thanks.

 

Beep Bip, Bip Bip Beep…

Image: qualityinformationpublishers.com

Image: qualityinformationpublishers.com

Good morning, listeners! In today’s show, we’ll have old favourites like the Flash! Friday flash fiction contest, and a slight frisson of the loopiness that usually marks our Friday, but there’s also a teeny bit of news.

Are you ready?

(Audience gasping with anticipation)

Are you sure?

(Audience laughter)

Well, all right then! Here we go. Hold onto your neighbour, everybody, because…

*drumroll*

Yesterday, I managed to finish draft 1 of ‘Emmeline and the Ice-God’!

(Applause)

Yes, yes, thank you. Thank you so much!

(Sustained applause, cheering, stamping of feet, &c.)

Image: intermezzo.typepad.com

Image: intermezzo.typepad.com

Yeah, yeah, all right. So I’ll quit it with the playacting now. But – in all genuine seriousness – I am very, very glad to be the proud owner of a completed manuscript of the story of Emmeline this fine morning. It’s slightly awkward that I managed to finish it on the same day as I blogged about how it seemed to be going on… and on… and on, but I just got overtaken by a spirit of urgency yesterday, and I worked right through, all day long. I wrote over 6,000 words, and I brought that story to heel.

This means my brain’s slightly fried today, of course. I’m quite sure nobody will even notice, though.

I’m almost afraid to share the final wordcount, lest I cause some of you to have nervous and/or bilious attacks, but I guess I’ll take that chance. It came in, all told, at 93,500-something words – which, before you start pointing it out – I know is far too long. My brain’s been abuzz with ideas for pruning the beast ever since I placed the final full stop, and I’m pretty sure there’s an entire chapter near the beginning that can be entirely cut out. I’m pretty sure I can bring it down to around 80,000, or as close as possible to that figure. Like every first draft, there’s plenty of excess to trim.

Even though writing ‘Emmeline’ was no picnic, particularly in the last few weeks, I am so glad I did it. I’m glad I got a burst of inspiration that day in late October, and that a little girl with a know-it-all nose and a shock of curly hair decided to stroll into my head and demand that her story be told. I’m glad I got to accompany her on the adventure of a lifetime, and that I got to meet her friend Thing, who – if I’m being honest – I want to adopt as my very own. I’m sure if I’d gone with the idea I was supposed to use for my NaNoWriMo project, that it would have worked, too – but it probably wouldn’t have been as much of an exhilarating joyride.

I’m also very glad that I can say the following sentence: ‘In the last year – since January 2013, when I put aside ‘Tider’ Mark I forever – I have written three books.’ Three.

There’s a lifetime’s dream fulfilled, right there. Even if no other eye roams across a word I put on paper, I know that I have written, and that’s good enough for me. That’s not to say I won’t fight tooth and nail to have ‘Emmeline’ published, by hook or by crook, but that’s a fight for another day. My first job is to make the story as good as it can possibly be, and I’ll worry about the rest of it later.

And now – on to our other Friday feature. I’ve been getting into the habit of posting my entry for the Flash! Friday contest here on my own blog, for a few reasons: one, because I’d like to get some feedback on my flash fiction, and two, because it forces me to get my act together and produce a piece of writing. So, today’s no exception.

This week’s prompt image was as follows:

Tiger and Turtle Magic Mountain, Duisburg, Germany. Image: worldlandscapearchitect.com

Tiger and Turtle Magic Mountain, Duisburg, Germany.
Image: worldlandscapearchitect.com

We had to include a tiger, or a turtle – not just the word, this week, but the actual thing itself.

So. I made this.

The Tiger’s Mark

‘You’ll know ‘im by the tiger on ‘is jacket,’ Jez had said. ‘Idiot’s never without it.’ So I’d followed the flash of gold all the way up to the Whirligig, the tiger’s jewelled eyes starin’ me down with every step.

‘We’ll see who’s smilin’ in a minute, mate,’ I winked at it.

He jogged up to the viewing platform, me a shadow in his wake. The tiger seemed to nod, almost knowingly, as he went; I checked my blade, sweatin’ hard.

‘Get the job done, fool,’ I muttered.

I glanced at the CCTV camera; nearin’ the blackspot now. I picked up the pace.

Suddenly, he turned, flingin’ the jacket off. He was covered in long, thin scars, shinin’ silver. His mouth gaped wide, and I smelled it – hot, meaty breath. I heard the low rumble. I saw the yellow eyes like trapped suns, and the gold-black fur.

I never had a chance.

Screw you, Jez, I thought, as he pounced.