Tag Archives: writing challenge

One Girl Went to Mo, Went to NaNoWriMo…

Yes. The rumours you may have heard are true. I am, in fact, taking part in NaNoWriMo 2017. I’m currently way behind on my word count, naturally, because as well as being the mother of a toddler so energetic that, basically, by the end of the day I’m barely fit to sit upright in a chair, I’ve also been sick for the past three or four days.


I’ll be all right in a minute.


I don’t think it’s catching – hey! Come back!

Anyway. For those of you still within shouting distance, you can check out more about NaNoWriMo here. If you’ve never heard of it before, it’s basically a writing challenge for the month of November where people all over the world attempt to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I took part in it before, back in 2013, and managed to complete the challenge; the novel I started then turned into what has become The Eye of the North. I’m far from being the only person who has turned a NaNo project into a published book – check out the #NaNoWriMo hashtag on Twitter, where other authors have talked about turning their fast-drafted first drafts into polished, publishable work.

So. Have I convinced you to try it yet? Check it out. 50,000 words sounds like a lot – it is a lot – but it’s basically 1,700 words a day for the entire month. And then? You have the bones of a finished book. It’s an amazing thing, to validate your novel and get marked as a winner – and even if you never do anything with your words, you’ve still managed to complete a challenge that most people will never attempt.

And maybe you’ll find yourself, in a couple of years, reminiscing about good ol’ NaNoWriMo as you sign your publishing contract with an artistic flourish. Who knows?

In any case, wish me luck. I’m going to need it. My NaNo project is titled – for now – The Leaky Witch, and you can read a bit more about it here. I’ll keep you all posted!



Wednesday Write-In #74

The words for this week’s CAKE.shortandsweet’s Wednesday Write-In were:

package :: jointed :: ribs :: monochrome :: wet ink

And, after much cogitation and deliberation, this story here is what I made out of ’em.

Image: damoselsprintersblocks.com

Image: damoselsprintersblocks.com

It Is Written

It was a dark and stormy night…

Yeah, all right. So I did that on purpose. What, you think because I live on the streets, I can’t be in on the joke? Get real.

Anyway, it was a dark and stormy night, that night. The sort of night that makes you think the dawn’s never goin’ to come, no matter how hard you hunker down and suffer through it. The sort of night that’s full of knives. It was late, too, when I first saw this weird old guy come huffing and puffing down the street, well past midnight. He was a bit like an insect in a suit, this bloke, oddly jointed and full of corners – his knees stuck out to the side as he walked, like he was on springs. He had a black umbrella, shining and wet beneath the streetlights, clutched in one knobbly hand. The ribs of it looked broken at the front, because they kept bashing into his face as he went – the wind was one of them capricious types, you know the ones. Can’t make up its mind what way its blowin’. In his other hand, he had a package tied up in brown paper and string, like somethin’ out of another century. It was biggish and squarish – looked about the size of a small paintin’, not that I’d ever seen one in the flesh. Whatever it was, it seemed heavy. By the time he got close to me, he was pantin’ like a man halfway up a mountain.

Anyway, on he came. I sat quiet.

He came level with my place – my ‘place’ bein’ a nice, me-sized nook in the brickwork in front of an old buildin’, used to be a bank I think before everythin’ turned to muck – and I watched as he stopped beside an old rubbish bin, out on the pavement. He looked up and down the street like a man afraid the cops are on his tail – that was what made me perk up and take notice, if I’m bein’ honest. Somethin’s not right here, I told myself. I want to be in on it, just so’s I can deny everythin’.When he was finished scopin’, he turned back to the bin. Mutterin’ under his breath the whole time, he jiggled the squarish thing he’d been carryin’ out from under his arm, and lined it up for shovin’ into the bin. He had a bit of trouble with it – the package wasn’t quite the right shape, and between the wind and the rain and the tricksy umbrella, he didn’t seem like he had enough hands to do the job right. I was on the spot of slinkin’ out and offerin’ assistance when he gave a yelp like a dog in pain and, with one final push, left the thing half-in and half-out of the bin.

Then he took off down the street like a rat out of a trap, and didn’t once look back.

So, I sat gazin’ at the bin. The package started to come open in the rain. I saw there was paper in it, paper with writin’ on it. Wet ink slid down off the paper, like the words were so new they hadn’t had a chance to settle in properly, and I knew that if I didn’t do somethin’, the message on that paper was goin’ to end up washed down the gutter. Bein’ a man of letters, I couldn’t have that.

So I got up, and I soft-shoed my way over to the bin. The place was deserted. The street was a howling hollowness.

I grabbed the package, and straight away sort of wished I’d left well enough alone. The old guy hadn’t been pretendin’ – it was heavy. Metal. It clacked, like it was full of movin’ parts. I realised then that there were loads of pages in here, all of ‘em printed with fancy letterin’, monochrome and crisp – and I’m talking printed, like Gutenberg. Old-style hand-carved letters, spiky and sore to the eye. Sathanas Dixit, I read, before my brain sort of went into a seizure. I blinked a bit, wonderin’ why I couldn’t see right, and tried to focus on somethin’ else.

Then, my eye fell on a handwritten page. I pulled it out and tried to angle myself so that I could read it in the glow of the streetlight without letting the rain rip it out of my hand.

Daniel, it said, the handwritin’ lookin’ breathless, if you know what I mean. The printing blocks and documents I mentioned are enclosed. I cannot have them in my home any longer. As I tried to explain on the ‘phone, they have started arranging themselves – you must believe me! I cannot tell you how often I have checked over the work and realise it says something I never intended; the mistake is not mine! I put the blocks in, and they print something different, something – horrifying. It is Him, Daniel. Him! His power is too strong, and I cannot bear it. Please, take these infernal objects and bury them deep, somewhere I cannot know about and somewhere I will never find them. Please, I beg you. And please, we must disband our group. We are meddling with power that no man has a right to. Believe me. Nathan.


I heaved the package, blocks and ink and paper and the lot, over to my cubby. My eyes recovered fine, and once they were workin’ again I read all night long, and never felt another drop of rain.

What a stroke of luck I had that dark and stormy night, eh? Or maybe it wasn’t luck so much as another part of His plan, slotting right into place.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide that one.




NaNoWriMo is DoneThankGodOh!

Look at this! Image: NaNoWriMo.org

Look at this!
Image: NaNoWriMo.org

So – my apologies for the lack of my usual broadcast this fine Wednesday morning. I have a story in my brain-pan based around this week’s CAKE.shortandsweet’s wonderful prompt words – which are, for the curious, ‘free sample’, ‘sear’, ‘clan’, ‘daytripper’ and ‘spray’ – but I fear it will have to wait for a little longer.

For, dear reader, this morning – in the last few moments! – I have managed to write my fifty thousandth word, and validate my NaNoWriMo novel.

Image: bubblews.com

Image: bubblews.com

I now intend to make myself a celebratory cup of coffee and sit in a darkened room for a little bit. I may cheer, but I will be doing it very, very quietly.

The good news (or, well, the better news, maybe) is that, while I’ve reached my NaNo goal, I am not yet finished with Emmeline’s story. It will take at least another 10,000 words to see the story through, and then I can think about editing it and polishing it and letting other people read it. I am pleased with how it’s gone so far – I think, for a first draft, and a first draft written in a white heat, at that, it’s reasonably strong material – but a good, thorough edit will soon put the whole thing to the test. If it wobbles at the first breeze, or starts to fall apart as soon as I make the barest change, then I know I’m in trouble.

However, from me, and from Emmeline, and from Thing, it’s a fond ‘farewell’ for the moment. I’m off to rediscover what it’s like to be a human adult who goes outdoors and does stuff besides stare at a computer screen and think, but just as soon as I can I’ll let you all know how the story of Emmeline is getting on.

For this isn’t the last you’ve heard of my intrepid heroine, make no mistake!

Congratulations to any of my fellow NaNo-ers out there who are starting the validation process – and to those who couldn’t find it in their hearts to take part this year, perhaps 2014 will be your year.

It’s worth it – trust me!

Image: NaNoWriMo.org

Image: NaNoWriMo.org


I may have done something foolish yesterday.

No. Scratch the ‘may have done.’ I did do something foolish. It could, however, turn out to be the best thing I’ve done in quite a while.

So, what did I do? Well, I signed myself up for NaNoWriMo, didn’t I.

Image: thesnapper.com

Image: thesnapper.com

‘NaNoWhat?‘ I’m sure some of you are saying – well, fear no more. I shall explain.

(At this point I cannot resist a picture of Inigo Montoya. Please stand by:

Image: quickmeme.com

Image: quickmeme.com

Okay. Normal service can resume.)

NaNoWriMo stands for ‘National Novel Writing Month.’ Every November, people all over the world pledge to write 50,000 words during the calendar month, and at the end of that time they submit their work (for counting purposes only) to the NaNoWriMo website. If they have reached the grand total of 50,000 words, or more, they are declared ‘winners’; if not, well, there’s always next year.

The idea behind it is to encourage people to write enough words to form a first draft – you’re only supposed to write for the month, not edit or any of that fancy stuff – so, in theory, there should be just enough time to get it done. The website offers encouragement, tips and tricks, all the help you could want and lots of support from your fellow NaNoWriMo-ers, and I think it’s a great idea. I’ve been wondering about taking part for a while now, and so yesterday I did what I normally do when I’m making a big decision, i.e. I agonised about it forever and then just threw caution to the wind and signed myself up before I could talk myself out of it.

I spent some time yesterday, once the deed was done, putting a little bit of flesh on the bones of an idea I’ve had stewing for a while. It’s an idea I haven’t thought about too deeply, so the story was a total sketch – all I had was a title, and a vague notion of the central characters. (NaNo is supposed to be about writing a story from scratch, not about putting the finishing touches to a project you’ve had on the go for a while, but I don’t think anyone really minds as long as you’re writing.) As you might expect for me, it’s going to be a children’s book, and it’s going to involve family ties and friendship, and noble self-sacrifice for others, and deep, life-changing love (but not the yucky kind. This will most definitely not be a ‘kissing book.’)

I promise, I promise it won't be a kissing book. Okay? Image: smallreview.blogspot.com

I promise, I promise it won’t be a kissing book. Okay?
Image: smallreview.blogspot.com

One character who I am quite clear on is the Antagonist – and he deserves that capital A, for he is a nasty creature – and I’m letting him settle in my head. The whole book will take shape around him. An ancient evil force, whose prison is made weak and who is finally released in error by a child, he will wreak all kinds of dreadful havoc. In preparation for getting started, I’m thinking deeply about a few things, including: ‘When I was eleven, what were the things I was most scared of?’ and ‘When I was eleven, who were the people I loved the deepest?’

Of course, I haven’t written a word. I can’t even write the title into my Word document before November 1st, because I would consider that cheating. However, I think a bit of mental preparation can’t hurt.

I’m also going to write this book in the third person. I’ve made that very clear to my brain just in case it starts to write in first-person, which seems to be its default setting. I haven’t tackled a full-length project like this in the third person for a long, long time, and I’m looking forward to that. Third-person gives the writer a bit more freedom than first-person, but it also means the reader isn’t as involved in the action. As a reader, I don’t really have a preference for one over the other, but as a writer I want to make sure I can handle both types of narrative voice with equal ease. So, this is my chance.

Of course, my NaNoWriMo project may well turn out to be nothing. The story may work, or it may not. I might reach my 50,000 word target, or I might burn out at the 20,000 word mark. I’m hopeful something great will come out of it, something I can work on and perfect well into the new year, but even if it fizzles out I know that nothing related to writing is a waste of time.

I still feel like I’m being a reckless so-and-so, though. Will you wish me luck? I’d really appreciate it.

And hey! If you want to take part yourself, here’s the link you need: NaNoWriMo. Have you always wanted to write a novel? Well, here’s your chance!

Happy Tuesday, folks. While I’m here, thanks for all the feedback I got – not all of it via WordPress – on yesterday’s blog post. It seems to have struck a chord with some of you, and I’m glad.

Wednesday Write-In #48

This week’s words for CAKE.shortandsweet’s Wednesday Write-In were:

toxic  ::  imprint  ::  fluorescent  ::  cream  ::  water pressure



The fluorescent tube flickered above our heads, its failing light mimicking my suddenly irregular heartbeat. I picked at a tear in the greasy, checkered tablecloth, its plastic surface giving way to a toxic-looking underlay. I loosened some of it with a questing fingernail, wondering if I could sneak some into his coffee without him noticing.

‘Could you have picked a worse place to tell me this?’ I asked. The crackling buzz of the dying light filled my brain, and he made no move to reply. He shifted in his chair and cleared his throat, and his eyes flicked up to the wall behind me.

The imprint of his wedding ring was still on his finger. The skin where it had been was shiny-looking and new, like a freshly healed wound.

‘Look,’ he began, ‘I’m sorry. I never meant for any of this to hurt you.’

‘If that was true,’ I said, ‘you wouldn’t have done it.’

‘So, we can sort out the house and stuff at a later date, yeah?’ The eyes again, flicking up to the wall. I wondered what I was keeping him from, where he’d rather be.

‘Do you even care about me? Did you ever care?’

‘D’you want another coffee? I wouldn’t get the cream this time, though. It looks a bit off.’ He met my eyes and gave me his little boy smile, the one which managed to be sweet and apologetic at the same time, the one that said ‘sorry, love – I forgot to get the newspaper,’ or ‘sorry, love, I didn’t get around to washing the car.’ Sorry, love – I couldn’t remember how to love you, so I just stopped.

‘Is there someone else? Is that it?’

‘So, how’s work, and everything?’ he asked, winding his fingers together, his knuckles whitening. ‘Anything happening with the new boss?’

‘Is she younger? Better looking? No, forget I asked. I don’t want to know.’

He took one last look at the clock.

‘Look, I should probably go, you know? I have to meet someone, in a while. Will we just…’ he took a heavy breath, biting his lip as he gazed at me. After a few minutes he blinked, shaking his head. ‘I’ll be in touch then, right? In a few days?’ His voice was bright, and he was already half on his feet.

I expected him to reach over and shake my hand, then. I genuinely, honest to God, thought that’s what he was going to do, like I was a client and this was a business meeting.

I stood up, carefully. The table surface seemed too far away as I reached down to grab my phone and keys; my hands didn’t belong to me. I felt like a helium balloon, full to bursting, rising up and up toward the cobwebbed ceiling. I clamped my mouth shut, because I felt it coming, like I was a pipe under the wrong pressure, a water main about to blow, a sewer threatening to overflow.

‘Are you…’ he began, but he looked at me and his words just dried up. I’d never seen his mouth hang open before – not for me, at least. I said nothing, and he said no more.

I kept my mouth shut all the way home, driving carefully and considerately; I kept it shut as I locked the car, unlocked the front door, and kicked off my shoes. I kept it shut as I walked upstairs to the bathroom, and as I wrenched the rings from my finger, and as I pulled out the plunger from our – my – designer wash-hand basin, and as I dropped them down the plughole one by one.

I kept it shut as I dropped our wedding photograph onto the tiled kitchen floor, and even as I smashed the china bride-and-groom figurine he’d bought me for our first anniversary, and as I cut my wedding dress into a mass of tiny, silken squares, fit for nothing.

By the time I finally opened my mouth again, there was nothing left to say.



Wednesday Write-In #41

Prompts: audit  ::  smother  ::  lost property  ::  plumber  ::  Disneyland

Image: thejewelstore.com

Image: thejewelstore.com

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz

If hair oil and attitude could stand up on two legs and growl, thought Josephine, then they’d look just like this guy. Six foot five with overalls like the inside of a coalmine, he clutched a wrench as long as she was tall and grimaced down at her like she was something that had bubbled up out of a sewer.

‘What the hell you think this place is, Disneyland? Don’t give me that,’ he said.

‘All I asked was…’

‘I know what you asked!’ he replied, leaning down to give her the full benefit of his meat-breath. ‘I heard ya.’ Jo stepped back a little, wishing she could close her nostrils like a camel in the desert.

‘Look,’ she said, once she’d regained her composure. ‘The guest says it fell down the drain in her bathroom. Isn’t it, I dunno, logical that it’d end up here?’

‘Listen, sweetcheeks,’ he said, pulling a rollup from behind one encrusted ear, ‘I’m a plumber, not a magician. You watched me take that pipe apart. Did you, or did you not, see a diamond ring?’ He ran his liver-coloured tongue up the length of his homemade cigarette before slipping it between his lips. ‘You did not see a diamond ring, my friend, because no diamond ring exists. Ergo.’ He pronounced it ‘ergot’, like the fungus, not like the Latin, and Jo struggled not to correct him.

‘Do not light that up, Valentine,’ she said, knowing even as she spoke that it was pointless. Her eyes began to water as the rancid stink of whatever he was smoking filled the tiny, closed space between them. He bared his teeth in what he probably thought was a grin, his tectonic shoulders shaking in a silent laugh.

‘Are you saying the guest is lying? Because, you know, that’s a serious accusation, Val.’ His only response was a shrug and an eyeroll. ‘She’ll be coming down to Lost Property at 4pm, so we need to have something to show her before then.’ He fixed her with a glare and exhaled a thin stream of poisonous smoke straight into her face. She did her best not to smother, as she wasn’t sure what Val would do with her body. Stuff it in the pipe and hope for the best, she reckoned, with a shudder.

‘So, what? You expect me to find a ring that ain’t there in case an over-pampered human poodle decides to sue, or something?’ He looked like he wanted to spit.

‘Look, nobody said anything about suing anyone,’ said Jo, coughing slightly. ‘But – you know. She may ask for an audit of the entire premises, or a hotel-wide search, or even a systemic scouring of every square inch of pipe in the place. Right? So if you don’t want to spend the next six weeks scrubbing God knows what out of God knows where…’

‘Find the ring, right, right,’ muttered Val. ‘Who is this broad, anyway?’

Josephine licked her lips as she thought about how to reply.

‘Think billionaire lawyer’s wife crossed with Hollywood royalty crossed with actual royalty,’ she said. ‘And then double it.’

Val’s eyes bugged out. ‘Am I right in thinkin’ this ring’s more than just a fancy finger-bauble, then?’

Josephine nodded, slowly. ‘It’s probably worth more than the entire hotel,’ she said. ‘I’m not joking.’

‘All right, all right,’ grumbled Val, adjusting his grip on the wrench. He bent to the pipe once more, sizing up which bolt to loosen next. ‘Get outta there, a’right? A man needs room to work.’ He leaned in to the job before Jo had a proper chance to get herself out of the way, and a rusty, foul spray of something she didn’t want to think about fizzed out, all over her regulation navy pencil skirt.

‘Valentine!’ she shrieked. ‘Watch what you’re doing!’

‘Sorry! Jeez! It’s only water, okay? Quit the yellin’!’

‘Jesus!’ She scrubbed at the front of her skirt, but it was soaked through. A dark stain was already spreading itself over her lap. ‘I can’t work the rest of my shift in this.’ She glared at Val, but softened when she saw the contrition written all over his face.

‘I’ll pay for your cleaning bill, you know, if…’

She cut him off with a wave of her hand. ‘Please, Val. You earn less than I do. Look, just carry on with the job, okay? I’ll go and change, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.’ She risked a grin, and he gave her a grimy thumbs-up as she got to her feet.

‘Okay, then. Well. Let me know if you find anything, won’t you?’

‘You know it,’ said Val, already shifting his focus back to the pipe.

‘And – Val?’ she said. He shot his eyes back toward her again, something like nervousness in his eyes. ‘Put that cigarette out, okay? It’s completely against regulations in here.’ He huffed out a sudden chuckle before pinching the cigarette out and slipping it back behind his ear in one practised motion. She smiled her thanks before turning away and hurrying, click-clack, down the hall and back up toward the hotel proper. Val watched until she’d reached the utility stairs and climbed them, and he listened for the bang as the fire-door slammed closed.

Only then did he reach into his breast pocket and retrieve the tiny, shimmering ring which had been nestling there all along. He allowed himself a minute to imagine it adorning his Millie’s wedding finger before dropping it back into the murky sludge inside the pipe that lay, in pieces, on the floor.

‘She wouldn’t wear it anyway, and if it’s that fancy I couldn’t sell it, neither,’ he muttered. ‘Ain’t no good to nobody.’

He sighed, and settled back against the wall to enjoy his cigarette in peace. He’d have to leave it at least twenty minutes, maybe more, before going to break the good news to Jo. Plenty of time to enjoy a smoke, and daydream about asking for a raise.

Prodding the Writing Brain

Every week (or, well, most weeks, at least) I take part in two writing challenges, one on Wednesdays and the other on Fridays. Anyone who’s been lurking around ‘Clockwatching…’ for a while will, no doubt, be aware of this; it’s my sincere hope that you’ve been enjoying the fruits of my labours, too. I look forward each week to these writing opportunities. If nothing else, it (usually) proves to me that I am capable of pulling a story together at short notice, and that I can rely on myself and my imagination to get me through a writing challenge. Whether or not the resulting story is worth reading, of course, is another question.

(Doubtless, there are weeks when my brain is an arid wasteland and no amount of encouragement can get the river of inspiration to flow. Those occasions are important, too. You can’t win ’em all, and it helps to know that it’s all right to not be able to call up a story on demand, every once in a while. The words will return when they’re ready. Fingers crossed.)

Call me again next week, right? It's just not happening today. Image: rxworks.com

Call me again next week, right? It’s just not happening today.
Image: rxworks.com

In any case, one thing these writing challenges have in common is that they both make use of prompts, or things designed to stimulate a writer’s imagination and give them some parameters for the work they’re going to produce. Prompts can take many shapes – if you think about it, actually, pretty much anything can be used as a writing prompt – but the ones I’m most familiar with are these: word prompts, and image prompts. Writing a story based on word prompts is, I feel, an entirely different challenge from writing one based around a picture prompt.

The Wednesday Write-In challenge, run by the CAKE.shortandsweet website, uses word prompts. Every Wednesday, first thing in the morning (before I’ve even had breakfast, usually), I check to see what words have been chosen for that week; because my entry for this competition doubles as my blog post for the day, I’m usually under time pressure to get the challenge completed. This, of course, is a good thing. It’s the equivalent of lifting weights with my frontal lobe, except a lot more fun. So, I look at the words, and I let them settle as I sit and take breakfast with my husband. I let them percolate as I boil the kettle for our morning tea. I ruminate upon them as I mooch about the internet, checking my various hang-outs, seeing what’s going on in the world, until – finally – my brain puts itself into gear and I can start planning out what I’m going to write.

Working with word prompts is, I think, slightly easier than working with picture prompts. Word prompts, to me, give a framework to a story. Writing this way reminds me, sometimes, of putting together a jigsaw; as kids, we’re always taught to find the corner pieces first, and get those in place before making the rest of the puzzle. Prompt words, then, are a bit like the corners of the jigsaw. They not only give me ideas for the story, but they are also like pegs upon which I can hang the fabric of what I’m trying to say; they form the corners, the turning points, the motifs. Sometimes, one word will jump out at me more strongly than the others and that word will be the leading image or idea in the story – the rest of the piece will slot into place around that. Sometimes, all the words will seem equally important, and demand the same share of the story. Either way, it’s a wonderful feeling to watch the story unfold in your head, to bring forth from nothing an entirely new piece of writing.

On Fridays, the wonderful people over at Flash! Friday run another writing competition. Each week, there is a prompt image provided, and the rules regarding how long the story should be change every week. Sometimes, they are as short as 100 words; sometimes, it can be closer to 500. Usually, the word count hovers somewhere around 250 or so. Besides the word count, and the prompt image, no further parameters are provided. This challenge is, to me, harder than the Wednesday Write-In. I’m not entirely sure why, but I find it harder to create a story from a picture than I do from prompt words. Sometimes it worries me a bit – normally, I like to think of myself as a fairly visual person. When something is being described to me, I can see it clearly in my mind, and when I’m reading, sometimes, it’s like I’m watching a movie. I’m good at visualisation, mental manipulation of shapes, and that sort of thing. Yet, my writing brain responds better to word prompts.

I’ve concluded it may be because the word prompts, as I’ve said, create a better framework for a story than a single image does. Perhaps it’s even because a picture prompt doesn’t limit my brain enough – I know that sounds a little unhinged, but it’s true! A picture prompt gives a starting point, whereas word prompts, at least the way my brain uses them, can create an entire story arc. I can look at the words and see a beginning, middle and end; a picture prompt can bring me anywhere.

Hello? Who's there? Image: technophobia.com

Hello? Who’s there?
Image: technophobia.com

I’m very grateful to the people who run the writing challenges in which I take part. They’re immensely helpful to me as a writer, and they’re also so enjoyable to participate in. They truly are challenges, in the sense that they ask for two different sets of writing skills, and the sort of brain agility that’s vitally necessary not only for writing, but for a whole host of other things too.

Have you taken part in writing challenges? Do you use writing prompts in your own work? Which ones do you find most useful?

And – why not take up one of the challenges I’ve mentioned here? Flash! Friday is currently running. Give it a go!

Wednesday Write-In #39

This week’s prompt words were:

report  ::  scorched  ::  landslide  ::  dead end  ::  rosemary


I knew he was coming by the sound of his boots, imperious and whipcrack-sharp. I glanced at the clock – his shuttle had made good time. He’d taken our distress call seriously, which could be a good thing, or its opposite. All around me, the others raced to gather paperwork, make the final preparations for the HoloDisplay, check if the water was chilled, and, I was pretty sure, familiarise themselves with the exits.

If his boots didn’t give him away, there was always the smell – as he got closer, it got stronger. Nobody even knew where he managed to get the leaves of rosemary that he was constantly chewing. Legend had it he even had a specially designed censer in his quarters to burn them in. It was just one of the many inexplicable things about the man. I’d heard the scent of it was supposed to improve memory, or sharpen acuity, but that had to be Old-Age nonsense. Earth-bound superstition.

He strode into the room without a word. As he swept his way to the chair at the head of the conference table, the only sound was a nervous tinktinktititink; the young cadet given the task of pouring his water had an unsteady hand. It did not go unnoticed.

‘Report?’ He snapped, before he was even properly seated. The suddenness of his voice in the stillness made the young cadet jump, and she slopped water across the surface of his Viewer. He cleared his throat with unnecessary force, and she scampered away.

‘Sir,’ I said, snapping my heels together. ‘Ensign Japper Centrada reporting.’

‘Ensign?’ he said, flicking his eyes to me. ‘Is there nobody more senior who can give me an accurate picture of events on the ground?’

I paused a moment, allowing the first rush, and the second, to pass over me. When I responded, my voice was level. Cool.

‘Sir,’ I said. ‘No, sir. My senior officers were planetside when the event took place, sir.’

‘Event?’ he bit the word off at the end, like a bone breaking. His fingers fumbled to his breast pocket, and he brought forth a few dried rosemary sprigs. He crumbled them on the table in front of him, releasing their sharp, Earthy scent. I realised how long it had been since my last trip Home, and I took a deep breath, and then another. ‘Ensign,’ he said. ‘The event?’

I collected myself.

‘Sir,’ I began. ‘At approximately 1000 Earth-time yesterday, a major catastrophe took place on the surface. It temporarily knocked out our Comms, and it seems to have largely destroyed our planetside base. Sir, we have sustained severe casualties.’

‘I was under the impression that a council had been requested,’ he said. The scent of rosemary in the air grew more pungent as he crushed the sprigs beneath his thumb, almost idly. ‘Our personnel were under Sanctuary, in that case. Were they not?’

‘Sir – yes. They should be under Sanctuary. That is, if they are still living. The landslide… well. The landslide has pretty much wiped out our presence on the surface. Sir.’

‘Landslide?’ he said. ‘What are you talking about, man?’ His eyes were wide, and he’d stopped his mindless toying with the rosemary leaves.

‘We… ah. We believe it to be…’ I signalled frantically to one of the others to get the presentation primed for the HoloDisplay. Someone raced to comply. ‘Sir, if you’d care to look, just here?’ I said, indicating the heads-up unit. An image of the surface appeared, the planet’s yellowy, dusty landscape as familiar to our eyes as Earth itself. The Display took in a huge swathe of the largest landmass, which we’d named Aldrin.

‘This was the surface, sir, at approximately 0958 yesterday. Our people were stationed here,’ – I zoomed in, briefly, to show him the base. It was nestled in the hollow between two of the uncountable number of mountains in the Aldrin region. He nodded, and I restored the screen – ‘and they were awaiting the arrival of the Takasian delegation when this happened.’ The first explosion, more massive than anything we were capable of, happened on the far left of the screen from our point of view. It would have been maybe five Earth miles from our base. Rapidly, every few hundred meters, explosion followed explosion followed explosion, until the entire mountain, it seemed, began to topple. The landslide completely engulfed our base. There was silence in the room as we watched.

‘Survivors?’ he asked.

‘None confirmed so far, sir,’ I replied.

‘You have sent word to Earth?’

‘Of course. Sir.’ I cleared my throat. Several minutes passed as he examined the screen, barking commands. He wanted the screen magnified, then decreased; then he wanted to see the heat signature for the past 48 hours; then he wanted a planet-wide HoloDisplay. I watched him through all this. His colour deepened, and his breathing quickened. He took a pinch of rosemary like it was snuff, but it had no perceptible effect. He shrank before my eyes, his fingers quivering – barely noticeable, but there – as he touched the screen.

‘We must make a retaliatory strike,’ he eventually announced. ‘Here.’ He zoomed in on their main city. ‘We must implement a scorched-earth policy; cut them off from everything. Smoke them out.’

‘Sir,’ I said, hoping the edge in my voice was only audible to me. ‘Sir, that tactic is a dead end here. It doesn’t work with the Takasians. They live mainly underground, and…’

‘Do not presume to tell me how to run a war, Ensign Centrada!’ he shouted, turning to face me. ‘You have your orders. Prepare the incendiaries, and get ready to contact the Takasian command. Give them as little warning as possible before engaging.’

‘Sir,’ I said. ‘Of course, sir.’ He glared at me for two or three heartbeats, before sweeping his way out and up the corridor again. No doubt to get back into his shuttle, and leave all this behind.

The scent of rosemary hung in the air after him. I took a lungful of it, and a calm certainty settled on my brain.

I began to key a command into my CommUnit, and I waited for the Takasian response. I wondered, as I did all this, how it would feel to be back on Earth.

In prison, of course, there wouldn’t be a lot of opportunity to smell anything that didn’t emanate from a human body, so I took another breath of rosemary-scented air, just before it faded.

Brain Training

And, as seems inevitable, Monday has rolled around once more. It’s amazing how time just keeps on keeping on, isn’t it? I hope you enjoyed your weekend, and that you managed to spend at least some of it doing something you enjoy. As well as seeing my best friend this past weekend, I also managed to fit in two long walks in the cool, clear Spring weather we’ve been having lately, and I ate some lovely food. So, life is good.

Image: donasdays.blogspot.com

Image: donasdays.blogspot.com

One of the (many) things I have on my mind this morning is the elasticity of the brain, and the suppleness of the imagination. I’ve realised this over the course of the last week. Those of you with eagle eyes will notice that this time period coincides (more or less) with my recent focus on the short story form. The changes I’ve seen in my thought processes are quite astounding, and they’ve given me hope that my aged brain isn’t beyond learning something new just yet.

I’ve always been a long-form writer. I always thought in terms of novels, or perhaps novellas. I’ve talked before on this blog about how I found it difficult, even when in school and university, to bring written work in under the required wordcount. For whatever reason, I never really thought of myself as a person who was able to write short stories, and so I never really tried to do it. There have been a few attempts at writing stories, somewhere around the 2 or 3,000 word mark, down through the years (one about post-natal depression, another about an abused woman who begs a vampire to ‘turn’ her so she’ll be powerful enough to take revenge on the man who brutalised her, among others), but I always found myself lacking in this area. So, I’ve surprised myself lately by really falling in love with the flash fiction form. I’m almost bemused by my desire to create a story which can fit into such a tiny space, and it’s the complete opposite of how I normally think and write. My brain’s a-changing, and it’s a good thing.

On Saturday, during the course of my walk, an entire short story popped into my mind. The setup, the characters, the family, the situation, the conclusion, the dramatic arc, the whole lot. I saw it play out in front of me like it was a short film. I’ve been letting it brew ever since, but – with any luck – I’ll get it down on paper today. The most amazing thing about this, though, is that it appeared fully formed in my head as a short story. There was no question in my mind that it should be written in no more than 500 words (so, really it will probably end up being a flash fiction piece). It felt different from my usual story-seeds, ones which bloom gently into my mind and might reveal a character, or a family name, or a pivotal event, or an emotional showdown, all of which will clearly seem like part of a longer story. This was an idea which made no apology for being short. It was no coquettish thought, flirting with my neurons and promising to give me more details if I’d spend several thousand words on it. Instead, it arrived like a boisterous guest at a dinner party – the type that makes straight for the drinks cabinet with a mind to livening up the place. I liked it immediately.

As I walked, examining this little story-gem from all angles, I realised ‘I can do this. I can change the way my brain works, and how it thinks and comes up with ideas. A little bit of practice is all it takes.’ It was quite the realisation. It made me understand that, sometimes, the only thing standing between a person and their ability to do something is themselves. I knew this already, in a sort of abstract sense, but it’s only when you find yourself in a situation where it becomes tangible that you really understand the truth of it. I had myself boxed off as being one particular sort of writer, and I never even allowed myself to try any other way of working; now, when I give it a go, I find I’m enjoying the freedom found in newness. I’m not the best short story writer or flash fiction writer in the world, and I know that. But I’m getting cautiously positive feedback (amid the rejections) from some of the work I’ve been sending out lately, and that’s enough. That’s good enough for me. This positivity, coupled with the fact that I’m really enjoying my experiments with these new forms, means that things are looking up on this sunny Monday morning.

I really hope you’re having a positive start to the week, and that you’ll look for the newness, and the excitement, in whatever your life presents to you today. If things seem tough, maybe stretch your brain to think about things in a different way. It might relish the challenge, and end up surprising you.

Image: breakingmuscle.com

Image: breakingmuscle.com



For the last little while, I’ve been trying to focus on writing stories, including several pieces of flash fiction. I’ve been submitting pieces to magazines and into competitions, with no luck so far (but it’s early days yet). It’s exciting, though, to sit down at a blank page and decide what I’m going to write (in other words, a short story or a piece of flash fiction), come up with a word – perhaps it’ll become the story’s title, or it’ll end up being included in the opening line, or something – and then watching a story come together.  It’s a bit like how Dr Frankenstein must have felt when he saw this happen:

It's ALIIIIVE!!Image: europeanliterature.wikispaces.com

Image: europeanliterature.wikispaces.com

I wrote a piece yesterday which had its genesis in an image of a lady confined to a wheelchair, sitting alone by a window. I also felt I had a first sentence, which went something like ‘It’s all my fault, anyway.’ I began to write, wondering what the lady was blaming herself for, thinking perhaps she would tell me about why she had become paralysed – but she didn’t want to tell me about that. The story ended up becoming about abuse, murder and family breakdown, and all in 500 words. When I started the story I had no idea where it would go, and in some ways it was like tuning into the thoughts of this character I’d created and listening to her as she explained how she was feeling. It’s a strange sensation. Sometimes I wonder who the writer is – me, or the people in my head. Often I feel more like a secretary. Perhaps I should learn shorthand in order to keep up with their dictation.

I think it’s a good decision to take a few days away from novel-writing at the moment. I hope it will help me keep my thinking fresh and give me renewed vigour for the story I’m creating in ‘Omphalos’. I’m at a point in the book where it’s a little bit difficult to maintain my focus, and I think getting away from it for a bit will make me more appreciative of it when I go back. I’m about as athletic as a wine-rack, but at the moment I feel like an athlete warming up and getting ready for a sprint, doing stretches while huffing and puffing in my ill-fitting singlet and shorts. My novel-writing muscles are tired and overworked, and while I don’t want my short-story muscles to atrophy, of course, it’s been a while since they were used as intensely as this. I’m trying to take it easy and gently urge them into action, but sometimes my enthusiasm overtakes me. I’ll have to remember to take my time and understand that a story doesn’t necessarily have to be finished the same day it’s started. Perhaps it’s not my fault at all, though – if the characters want to talk, who am I to tell them not to?

So, that’s my plan for today. I’m hoping to have an idea-spark for at least one, if not two, new stories, before filing them carefully away in the hope that a suitable submission opportunity will present itself. I seem to be more naturally suited to the flash-fiction form – a lot of my recent work is coming in at around the 500-word mark – so today I hope I’ll manage to stretch myself a bit more and write a slightly longer piece. Fingers crossed I won’t pull a mental muscle in my self-improvement attempts, though. I don’t think I can imagine anything more painful than a brain-cramp…

Image: weheartit.com

Image: weheartit.com

Happy Tuesday to you! I hope your writing endeavours (and general life-endeavours) are going swimmingly.