Friday 20 December 2013

Flash Fiction: S3xD0ll

Trouble. Big trouble. Big luscious lips and deep sensual eyes, staring at me. Big, deep and up-to-my-neck-in-it trouble.

Cath is due back any minute. Enough time to contrive an apology, but not enough to undo this mess.

"Don't spend all morning surfing dodgy sites." She winked as she headed for the door. "You need to buy milk and something for dinner. Speaking of surfing, don't forget to renew the firewall and anti-virus subscription; it expired yesterday. I'll be back at two to print out my portfolio."

I should have got my act together and headed out to the shops immediately, renewing the subscription on my return, rewarding myself with a coffee. The rest of the day would have been mine to squander. Should have... but as the door closed, my subconscious had already prioritised surfing with coffee over shopping and subscription renewal.

OK, I'll admit I may have looked at some sites that had nothing to do with my thesis write-up... including a couple that didn't involve pictures of cats. I was tempted to renew the subscription as further procrastination, but it was midday and the high street would be busy, getting busier.

Well, I've just renewed the sub and scanned and fixed the PC, but that's locking the barn door after the horse has bolted and the printer cartridges have emptied. How was I to know one of those sites had the S3xD0ll virus?

When I got back from the shops I thought Cath had returned early because the printer was chuntering away in the background. Cheap 3D printers have knocked the low end out of the consumer products market, with open-sourced and pirated designs online further squeezing the product designer jobs market. Cath, however, has secured an interview and she was going to print out some of her work to take along. In preparation she'd bought litres of plastic and metal powders... now used up. In their place I have a life-sized animatronic sex doll to explain away. Big luscious lips and deep sensual eyes, staring at me with preprogrammed expectation.

And that's the front door.

"S3xD0ll" was shortlisted in New Scientist's 2012 Flash Fiction competition. More background here.

Monday 16 December 2013

The Unputdownable Kraken

December? November... October! OK, so this is a little — OK, OK, a lot — overdue, but things have been busy.

October saw Untputdownable, the Bristol Festival of Literature, and BristolCon, Bristol's one-day SF and Fantasy convention, overlapping once again. Last year I time-sliced between the con and the last day of the lit fest. It was exhausting. This year I decided to avoid spreading myself too thinly by spending the day and early evening at the con and the evening at the Unputdownable Speakeasy, the lit fest wrap-up.

The con is very writer- and writing-focused and ridiculously good value for money, with some well-run and carefully considered panels, plus a host of other events, readings and casual conversations, all collocated. An intense day.

The lit fest is spread out over two weekends and the week in between across a number of venues around Bristol. Work-related travel meant I had to miss most of the events during the week, but along with my older son, Stefan, I did manage to attend a writing challenge on the first Saturday. The challenge? Write a story involving a Bristol-wide disaster of supernatural proportions themed around the event's title, The Kraken Rises!, and prompts and ideas dotted at three central Bristol locations, with writers on hand for inspiration and discussion.

Stefan noted that everyone seemed to stand around and talk about writing without actually doing any, while he got down and wrote his story, wasting no time taking out the suspension bridge and other landmarks in his opening paragraphs. I decided to experiment with a different approach to storytelling in my tale, "#KrakenEvent", using Twitter, web pages and texts to tell the story. We both got our stories in the next day.

But the story of the stories doesn't end there. During the week I received an email that my story had been shortlisted and was to be included in an ebook anthology. Because there was some crossover between BristolCon and the lit fest, and many of The Kraken Rises! participants are active in the Bristol Fantasy and SF Society, the winners were announced at BristolCon. Scott Lewis won with the storming allohistorical adventure of "Kitty McClure and the Cult of the Kraken". And I came second! And not once but twice in the same evening: the winners were announced again at the Speakeasy, along with the winner of the ebook coverart competition, Tina Altwegg.

We all walked off with bags of bookish goodies and the warm glow of an alcohol-washed evening. The ebook turned up in my inbox the next week... at which point I received the best surprise: Stefan's story had made it into the anthology! He'd been missed out of the original round of emails notifying shortlisted authors, hence the surprise. This made my day and his, and also means the anthology is bookended by Henneys — his is the first story in the book and mine the last. You can buy it for the Kindle, with proceeds going to the lit fest. Not all of the formatting of my story survived the ebook process — the dangers of eschewing the conventions of page and paragraph — so if you're interested in the story as originally formatted, drop me an email. You can read more about The Kraken Rises! in this interview by Joanne Hall with its organiser, Pete Sutton.

Given the number of Bristol Fantasy and SF Society folk who ended up in the ebook, we're planning a special Squidpunk BristolCon Fringe next September with readings from The Kraken Rises!. Squidpunk? A new genre created by Joanne Hall at BristolCon this year.

And speaking of Joanne Hall and BristolCon Fringe, the two of us are reading tonight. Better get my act together...

Thursday 31 October 2013

Sex, Libraries and Staying Up Late

It's almost the end of October... so about time I said something about September, especially as there are a couple of things to say about October that deserve their own post.

A few things happened on the flash fiction front, not least of which was having a story, "Another Coffee", published in Flash Me! The Sinthology.

I also had "Carefree", a drabble and a half, published with The Pygmy Giant.

I took part in a flash slam in Brighton, along with eight other flash-fictioneers, based on up to three rounds of story readings, with no story longer than 300 words. All slammers read in the first two rounds; I fielded "Authenticity" and "Wrecked", but didn't make it through to the final round. The standard of the three finalists was high, with Marc Nash emerging the outright winner. Great fun, even though it involved a lot of driving on my part!

And, speaking of participation, something completely different: The NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, a series of 48-hour writing challenges. I found out about it a few hours before the first round kicked off and, on a whim, signed up. You're randomly assigned a genre, a location and an object for your story, and 48 hours — or less, if you're respecting your local time zone — to write a story of no more than 1000 words. What did I get? A suspense story set in a cemetery, which must at some point include a sewing machine. Not a genre I've written in, with a setting that is a minefield of clichés and an object that could turn could bathetically undermine any attempt at suspense. And that, I guess, is why it's called a challenge! Anyway, it was good fun, more than I expected, and the next round is coming up this weekend.

And last, but most definitely not least, I did a reading at Winterbourne Library with four other local authors. I normally read out flash fiction, either dark or light, often wry or explicitly humorous, sometimes something at the other end of the scale. What I chose — "Promises You Can Keep" — was none of these and I was unsure of my choice beforehand, and even a little uncertain about it afterwards. Should I have chosen something more in my comfort zone? Something funnier, something darker, something else? A couple of days later I received a comment on this blog that told me it was the right story. I've received comments on my stories before, but this one is worth more than all of these put together.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Short Story: Promises You Can Keep

Pull, pull and pull again, tilt forward, pivot on the corner, swing, pivot on the other corner, walk out, pull and pull again. Not as young as he once was, but after all these years what mattered was experience over energy, mind over matter.

Pete leant on the washing machine, catching his breath, looking around. It was a big kitchen. Big and empty and incomplete, caught between one age and another, between one owner and the next. It was clear the new owner wanted a modern kitchen, one gutted of its history, cleared of its reminders. Ghosts of fixtures past haunted the walls, negative shadows of dressers, shelves and cupboards cast across age-darkened wallpaper. The house still clung to what remained of the old, but the new owner would win; the house lacked the energy to resist such determined change. Through the window Pete could see bygone furniture and fittings in the skip on the driveway, viscera and memories of the old house.

The kitchen had been stripped to bare essentials — a Belfast sink, a cooker of sorts and shelves in a pantry whose days against modern designs were surely numbered. The old fittings were joined by a fridge, a microwave and the washing machine, transients from the move, to be moved on without remorse when the time came.

Boxes were stacked high in two corners, their contents packed and sleeping, waiting for dark Victorian gothic to be banished by downlighters and sheen-surfaced, right-angled units. Only then would they venture into the kitchen to find a new home.

One box on the tiled floor was open. The essentials — a couple of pans, cutlery and plates for two, a pair of mugs, a kettle and little else — were out and in use on a worn-out sideboard moonlighting as a draining board and all-purpose surface.

In a living, lived-in house — a home — the flotsam and jetsam of everyday things would wash into place, sorted and settled by the drift of habit. Each thing and each kind of thing would belong, would have a home. But kettle, post, keys, phone charger and kitchenware were scattered without ritual or care across the sideboard, the floor and, before he had cleared it, the top of the washing machine. Unsettled. Restless.

Atop one pile of bills and flyers Pete spotted a yellow card: Pete the Plumber – The Promise of Punctual and Watertight Service. He smiled. He had been so much more impressed by his wording than Angela: "Dad, it makes you sound like a promise is as far as you'll get — all talk, no plumbing. Anyway, printing stuff out and pushing it through doors isn't how to get the work these days. You need to get yourself online."

He liked the slogan — he even made sure to 'promise' in his phone calls — and the cards seemed to work well enough — here he was, after all, making good on his promise of yesterday.

Boiling crescendo and a click from the kettle returned Pete's attention to other rituals. He was sure no one would mind him making himself a cuppa. He had found tea bags and milk; no sugar though — clearly not an essential.

Placing his mug and tool bag on the floor, he knelt down to inspect the back of the washing machine. "Ah, off balance. Bet that wobbled something out of place. Let's take a look." The owner had said the machine had worked for a few washes after the move, but had shaken wildly and loudly — wildly and loudly, at least, until it went dead and silent. He adjusted the feet of the machine, pulled out a spirit level and nodded, satisfied, before unscrewing the back to pull the rear panel off. Looking inside he chuckled. "That'd be it then. Those screws have worked themselves right out. Surprised those fastenings didn't shear off!"

He reached for his tea, but caught something out of the corner of his eye, something unexpected, not there before.

A boy.

A boy standing in the centre of the tiled floor.

A boy wearing traditional school uniform with shorts, a blazer and a cap. Motionless, the boy stared at Pete, the look in his eyes deeper than his eight or nine years. Pete knocked the mug, jolting tea onto the floor.

"Oh! Hello." The startled tea within the mug slowly calmed. "Didn't hear you come in." He forced a smile from his surprise. "I'm Pete, Pete the plumber."

"Are you here to fix our washing machine?" The boy's voice was crisp and well spoken. Pete was not sure what he had been expecting, but he was almost as surprised by the boy speaking as he had been by his silent appearance.

"Err, oh, yes. It's quite a simple fix really, just a couple of screws need putting back in place. They must've come loose during the move. The drum would've been jumping around like a mad dog in a cage — lucky the fastenings didn't come right off! Must've made a hell of a racket, eh?"

The boy was silent as he looked at Pete, at his tools, at the machine, then back at Pete. Calm and contained... on the outside. Pete could see in the boy's eyes that inside was a different story, as if sadness had been bottled, shaken and put to one side, barely held in by a stopper.

"If you want, you can watch me fix it." Pete nodded an invitation. The boy hesitated but accepted, walking over to one side as Pete pointed into the machine. "See here and here? There should be screws holding these bits together. I'll use new screws — the thread'll be gone on the old ones and we want to be sure it doesn't break again, don't we?"

The boy watched Pete fish into his bag for washers and screws.

"I'm Timothy."

"Pleased to meet you, Timothy. Just back from school?"

"Yes. We're late. There were roadworks. And an accident. In the roadworks."

"Roadworks and accidents." Pete sighed and shook his head at Timothy. "There's nothing worse than that. Nothing worse."

Timothy nodded. Pete reached into his tool bag for pliers and another screwdriver.

"Got any brothers and sisters, Timothy?"


"So just you and your parents in this big old house?"

"Just me and Mum."

"Your Dad...?" The words were out before Pete could stop them.

Timothy hesitated. When words finally formed in his mouth, his eyes had already told the story. "He's gone."

"Oh... I'm sorry." Pete looked back at the machine. He started fitting the rear panel back on. Screws he could find, but not the words. "I'm almost done."

"I... I think Mum's on the phone. She said she had a couple of calls to make because we were late. She... she should be here... in a moment."

Pete tightened the last screw, patted the machine then pushed and walked it back into place.

He knelt down next to Timothy. "You know you and your Mum are going to be OK, right? It won't be easy, but right now you're the most important thing in the world to your Mum, more important than you could ever imagine. And your Mum... your Mum is going to do everything she can to make your life the best it could be. You'll miss your Dad, you'll miss him something rotten, and so will your Mum, but you're going to be OK. That's a promise."

"How... how can you say that? How can you promise that?" Timothy's fists clenched, a storm gathering at the edge of his calm. "How can you know? You shouldn't make promises you can't keep."

Pete looked Timothy in the eye. "When I lost Marjorie, my wife, my little girl was about as old as you are now. And that's how it went. Angela was the most important thing in my world. She made life worth living. I tried to give her the best life I could, and she helped me have the best life I could. I look at you and I know you can be that person for your Mum."

Timothy's fists unclenched, the storm receding from his eyes, the promise of rain and thunder taken back. "You... you think I can be?"

"It won't be easy. You have to promise to try hard — wherever you are, whatever you do, whoever you become — to look after your Mum. You think you can do that?"

"Yes... yes, I can. I promise." The bottled sadness in Timothy's eyes stirred with belief.

"That's a promise you can keep." Pete patted Timothy on the back as he stood up. "Right, all done. Should work just as it did before the move. I'll set it going on a short cycle just to be sure. Tell your Mum there's nothing to pay — it'd be criminal to charge for such a simple fix!

"You've been great company, Timothy. I know you can keep a promise like that."

Pete turned the dial and pushed the button. The washing machine stirred to life with a gush of water and gentle anticipation.

"Timothy?" Timothy looked round. His mother was standing in the doorway, phone in hand, tears freshly wiped from her face, a look he knew too well. She tried to hide her crying, as if he would not notice, as if the absence of tears would not remind him of the absence of his father, as if the pretence would somehow dry their shared grief away.

"Mum, are you OK?"

"Oh... oh yes, Timothy. Yes." She faltered a smile. "I'm just a little upset, that's all... I was on the phone to someone whose father had just died. And that made me... anyway, it's OK, it's nothing to worry about — no one you know." She cocked her head. "I heard voices?"

"The plumber." Timothy turned back towards the washing machine. "He...."

"The plumber? I'm afraid he won't be coming. I just spoke to his daughter. He passed away yesterday morning — a heart attack. It can't have been more than an hour after I spoke to...." She frowned. Something was not quite right, not as expected. She stared at the washing machine marking time with a calm and rhythmic churn.

Timothy stared at the spilt tea on the tiles.

The two of them were alone in the kitchen, each one holding a question, each one missing a piece of a private puzzle. Timothy looked up at his mother and reached out to hold her hand — for reassurance, for life, for him and for her.

"Promises You Can Keep" was first published with Litro. More background here.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Looking Ahead

As promised in the previous post, in this post I'll look ahead to the coming weeks and months. Starting with tonight.

I'm going to the (re)launch of the North Bristol Creative Writing Group, which kicks off tonight. Although I don't know how often I'll be able to attend in future, it's closer than Bristol Parkway station — the most common reason I pass through Filton — and promises to be significantly more interesting.

In a couple of weeks time, on Wednesday 18th September, I'll be doing a reading in Winterbourne as part of the South Gloucestershire Discover Festival. I'll be reading along with Philip Douch, Louise Gethin, Sarah Hilary and Pauline Masurel. Three of the five of us read at BristolFlash, but this time the focus will be on not-quite-so-short short stories.

The week following, on the other hand, will be flashier. I'm taking part in a flash slam in Brighton at the FlashLit Fiction evening event on Thursday 26th September. Careful readers will note that the similarity between Bristol and Brighton is limited to a few letters, and they are somewhat geographically separated. As it happens I'll be in Oxfordshire, which is also not close to Brighton, but has the virtue of being not quite so far away. A rush-hour drive around the M25 should add to the intensity of my reading. There are three rounds in the slam, with the numbers whittled down in each round, each flash piece restricted to a maximum of 300 words. Whatever happens, the evening promises to be a good one.

The Bristol Festival of Literature is happening in October. I'm hoping to attend a couple of things, including a one-day writing event, "The Kraken Rises!", and an open mic, "Word Karaoke". There's more that I would like to attend than I can, but I was lucky enough to see a kind of dry run of the Bristol Writers' Group planned "Fear: tales in the caves" last night at Word of Mouth. As with last year, the last Saturday of the festival — 26th October — coincides/collides/cohabits a space in time with BristolCon. I plan to spend most of the day at the con, ducking out to go to one or two litfest events.

Speaking of BristolCon, and following on from the previous post about BristolCon Fringe, I'll be reading at the fringe on Monday 16th December with Joanne Hall. In the pipeline for April we're planning a flash fiction version of the fringe, a kind of BristolFlash SF&F mashup. Watch this space and this space for more news.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Looking Back

Some blog with a regularity you can set your clock by. Some blog so frequently you wonder when they get time to eat, sleep or do anything worth blogging about. Some bloggers are in both camps. Looking back over nearly three years of this blog — and the two-month gap since my last post — it's clear I am in neither. (That said, this blog has sustained better continuity than one of my technical blogs, which enjoyed a hiatus of almost eight years between one post and the next.)

Although I posted something here last month, it doesn't count as a post written by me — it was a guest post on Calum Kerr's blog tour, where the only writing technique I employed was copy-and-paste. That's not say I didn't blog last month, but what I wrote was posted here rather than here.

Which is a good place to start. That post — "Shipshape and Bristol Flashing" — describes some of the behind-the-scenes and what-happened-on-the-day for National Flash-Fiction Day 2013 in Bristol. For my own reading slot I opted for four very short flashes — "Another Coffee", "A Higher Calling", "Lost Love's Labours" and "Wrecked" — rather than a single, longer piece. You can see more on the BristolFlash Facebook page.

Coinciding with NFFD was a FlashFlood, which featured my drabble "Trashed", and the results of the British Fantasy Society flash fiction competition, in which a story of mine made the shortlist. Still keeping it short, "Ring Pull", a short rather than a short short story, made the shortlist of the Limnisa–Bluethumbnail Competition.

The last couple of months also saw some dead-tree story publication: my Flash 500 shortlisted story "Jack-o'-Lantern" appeared in Scraps, the NFFD anthology; "Alice2007" appeared in Physics World, a commission that grew from a conversation at April's Word of Mouth; and "A Higher Calling" appeared in The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013. Back online, "Two Weeks in Spain" found a new audience at ReadWave.

Writing-related events are often like buses: nothing for a while, then two or three turn up together. What this usually means in practice is that I usually miss a lot because I'm away... but it's summer, which sees me more at home than away, so I managed to attend two local events this week. First, the launch of BristolCon Fringe, a monthly fixture featuring SF and Fantasy readings from local authors, kicking off with Myfanwy Rodman and Gareth L Powell. Second, I went to the Southville Writers meetup, a relaxed mix of flash readings, conversations about writing and drink.

Next time... will be sooner rather than later. Instead of looking back, I'll be looking ahead.

Friday 12 July 2013

Guest Post: Under Pressure

It's Friday and there is flash fiction, but it's not from me. For today's thoughts and tale I'm handing the mic over to the blog-touring Calum Kerrauthor of recently published collection Lost Property and director of National Flash-Fiction Day, to channel the early eighties with a rendition of "Under Pressure", cunningly reinterpreted and recast as an allegory on creative writing. Take it away Calum!

Photo by Pey Colborne

In 2005 I gained my PhD in Creative Writing. After that I suffered a period of ‘writer’s block’ which lasted almost eighteen months. After that, I wrote fairly steadily for a couple of years, and then had another nine month period of ‘writer’s block’. That was four years ago and since then I have not suffered.

But also — and this is the reason why the terms have been placed in inverted commas — I have come to the opinion that there is no such thing as ‘writer’s block’, there is just insufficient motivation.

This is potentially a contentious position, but let me continue before you all start shouting and waving your order papers like crazed MPs waking from a post-prandial snooze to discover that your expenses have been outlawed.

I do believe that an individual piece of writing can grind to a halt. I also believe that sometimes, as a writer, you need to flick the switch from ‘transmit’ to ‘receive’ in order to refill the well, to have new things to broadcast, and to mix new metaphors. But, the idea that you can be full of the desire to write, full of ideas, but unable to write, just sits wrong with me now.

I firmly believed in it, back in those periods I mention above. And, I suppose, if it comes along again, I will believe in it again. But, my experience of the last few years will make it hard for me to convince myself of the fact. You see, back in late 2009, I discovered flash-fiction and it drew back the curtain and revealed the true Wizard of Block.

And, before you say that I am just in a particularly productive period or anything, I am currently 80,000 words into writing a novel and approaching its end, but I haven’t done any work on it in 6 months. Am I blocked? No. I’m just busy and insufficiently motivated to finish it (part laziness, part consumed with other work, part terrified of f**king up the ending).

But how, I hear you start to grumble, has flash-fiction convinced me of the myth of block?

Well, as is becoming very well documented, I have undertaken a couple of projects to write flash-fiction on a daily basis. First there was 31, then came flash365. That added up to nearly 400 flashes written in just over a year. How did I do it? Was I insanely inspired? Were aliens beaming stories into my head? Was I churning out rubbish and calling them stories?

Well, the last one is something you would need to judge for yourself, but considering the number of them which have found publication, I think perhaps not. So, how did I do it?

One word: pressure.

The first project, thirty-one stories to be written in January 2011, happened from a casual conversation with my then girlfriend, now wife, Kath. I put it forward as an idea, half joking, but when I woke the next morning a Facebook group had been created so that several dozen of my friends could monitor the project and make sure I was doing the work.


The next time around, I understood the need for the stern gaze of outsiders forcing me on, so I committed to publishing a new story every day on a blog, with a cut-off of midnight. And it worked. I never missed a day. If I was worried that I might, I wrote the stories early and scheduled them. After the first few times that I swerved too close to the deadline and received emails and Facebook messages asking me ‘where the heck is tonight’s story?’ I knew I could never miss.


And then, my promotional activities for National Flash-Fiction Day landed me on radio shows, on both Radio 4 and Radio Solent, being given a sound-effect, a time-limit of twenty minutes and half an hour respectively, and being told to produce a broadcast-worthy story.

Lots of pressure.

And now? Now I have started writing flash-fictions as a performance. I use a projector connected to a computer with a word processor, I take prompts from the audience, put five minutes on the clock, and craft a tiny tale while an audience reads along. It’s terrifying, but it works!

All the pressure!

Add all this together and you can see how my belief in THE BLOCK might have dissolved. You see, there have been times during all of this when I have really not wanted to write. Times when I have been as resistant as a resisting thing. Times when I was sure that I would put my fingers on the keys and nothing would happen. But it always has. Always. All I have needed is the motivation.

And, this is the sad truth of being a writer. Until you reach a certain level of success, where your editor is dribbling down your neck, reading your words as you type the last full stop, then there is no such thing as a deadline except those you create for yourself. Through flash-fiction and my crazy projects, I have discovered a way to build some of these for myself. What would be your way?

So you can see what happens under pressure, here is a story I wrote for the Radio Solent Breakfast Show on National Flash-Fiction Day 2012. I was given the sound effect of a ship’s horn and thirty minutes to write. I managed to produce two stories in just under fifteen minutes. This, the second one, is the one which I then broadcast.

Travelling Hopefully

The foghorn tore the air with a blast which echoed back from the quayside.

Celia had been four years old the last time she had been here. She barely remembered it. Visions of green and grey were all that she had in the way of childhood memories.

But now, here she was again after a lifetime of other countries.

She thought of growing up in Australia, and then the years spent in New Zealand as they travelled for her father’s work.

In New Zealand she met an Italian man and he took her all the way home to meet his family. She stayed in Italy for twenty years.

But when he left her for a local girl who didn’t need to hide her pale skin from the sun and didn’t — still! — need national customs explaining to her, she had set off on her own. Four years working in Belgium and three in France had finally been enough. She had needed something else. She had handed in her notice. She had packed her bags. And she had set sail.

And now, here she was.

The Southampton docks drew closer and closer. They weren’t lined with well-wishers. They weren’t lined at all. But it didn’t matter.

She was here. She was home.

Photo by Kevlin Henney

Calum Kerr is a writer, editor, lecturer and director of National Flash-Fiction Day in the UK. He lives in Southampton with his wife — the writer, Kath Kerr — their son and a menagerie of animals. His new collection of flash-fictions, Lost Property, is now available from Amazon or direct from the publisher, Cinder House.

Friday 21 June 2013

Flash Fiction: Lost Love's Labours

The love was gone. She searched all the places it had been. In the bedroom, at their favourite restaurants, among the wedding photos... she tried each one in turn, but it was nowhere to be found.

She tried to rekindle old flames, but found no more than ashes. She tried new flames. They burned passionately, brightly and briefly. Lovers loved but were not love.

She found it one morning over breakfast. Time and familiarity had misplaced it. A simple and true "I love you" served with coffee, woven discreetly into the daily routine. So easily overlooked, yet there all along.

"Lost Love's Labours" was first published with The Pygmy Giant. More background here.

Friday 14 June 2013

Flash Fiction: The Woodcutter's Stepdaughter

"Your hair is the break of day, the beauty of autumn."

These might once have been her mother's words, spoken as she brushed Scarlet's hair each morning. With patience and love she would look into the eyes of her only daughter, her only child, her only family. Gazing at Scarlet she would look into the past. She would talk about Scarlet's Papa, how she missed him, how they were when they were young, so free, so in love.

"Your skin is the falling of snow, but with the warmth of spring."

These were words of love, but not her mother's. That childhood was past. Her mother's kindness was buried in bitterness and time and a marriage to the brawling Bûcheron, a man Scarlet was forced to call Father but could never call Papa.

"Your eyes reflect a summer's sky with a sparkle from the North Star."

These words of love were born of passion, the love of a lover, Benjamin, her dearest B'jou.

"They are like wolves. His kith and kin are low-born forest dwellers, little more than foragers. You should be done with him. The young men of the village are finer and would court you."

These... these were her mother's words, the jealous contradictions of the woodcutter's beaten wife.

"I take it you have seen the 'wolf'."

Her grandmother greeted her at the door, smiling, knowing. Holding out freshly picked flowers, Scarlet blushed. Her late morning visits on market days had become lunchtime visits. Against her mother's will, Scarlet would take the route through the woods to see her Benjamin, to stray from the path with her B'jou, before taking bread and fruit to her grandmother's cottage.

"Why your mother hates him so, calling him such feral names, I do not know. Such strong hands, such a beautiful voice, such lovely big eyes. A kind and gentle man. Not like that drunken, hateful husband of hers. With my son she was carefree and beautiful; together they were such a couple. That Bûcheron brings out the worst in her. He has made her mean and cowering."

That night her grandmother's words fell in anger from Scarlet's lips.

"Spoilt child! This wolf's lechery and your grandmother's doting affection have poisoned you against us!"

Her mother hit Scarlet, hit her and wept, hit her to protect her, hit her to prevent the woodcutter doing the same. He went to grab Scarlet by the hair, he moved to strike her, but looking her in the eye, he spat and left, disappearing into a darker night to drink.

He returned in the morning bringing with him a twofold tale of sorrow. Scarlet collapsed and cried, but through her grief her anger rose, rose and gave her strength to shout at him, to strike him, to tear into his lies with a passion born of love. He did not strike back. He had no need. The story, a story, was around the village. It was said, so they said, that Scarlet's lover, her Benjamin, her dearest B'jou, had slain her grandmother as she slept; that the woodcutter had happened upon the cottage and tracked him down, closing the circle with his axe.

"The Woodcutter's Stepdaughter" was first published with Dr. Hurley's Snake-oil Cure. More background here.

Friday 7 June 2013

Flash Fiction: The Promise

Bruised and battered, diminished and forgotten, she still had hope.

She huddled with the others in the darkness, some simply neglected, some broken, others twisted beyond recognition. In the underpass of current affairs they mumbled to one another, about their hopes, about who they once were, about who they could have been and about the few — so very few — who had made it. Spotlights would sometimes scan over them, singling each one out of the darkness. Occasionally one of their number would be pulled out and thrust briefly into the media's gaze, before being thrown back into the blind spot of the public eye.

She had been born sparkling and smiling, gleaming and radiant, a beacon of hope, a symbol of change. She was held up and shown to all, paraded along the party line, praised without hesitation, promised without condition. It was all she knew.

But she began to sense there was more. There were those who doubted, those who criticised, those who spoke of others, of other promises made, promises now neglected, broken and twisted. And for the first time she noticed the darkness beyond the media's light. She saw shadows in the shadow beyond the edge of the platform. She saw the others huddled in the darkness, so many, once like her but now less, so much less.

And in the light she found she was no longer alone. There were others, sparkling and smiling, gleaming and radiant, each one paraded and praised and promised as beacons of hope and symbols of change. As each one arrived the platform became crowded. She was no longer at the front, no longer at the centre of everyone's attention, but still she smiled.

Then came the election. They won. They cheered. This was it. They had done it. They had made it. They awaited fulfilment. All those promises. But the light flickered and drifted away. They found themselves in darkness. They found they were not alone. A few — so very few — were pulled into the distant, fickle light. Most were returned, but never as they were before.

Bruised and battered, diminished and forgotten, she still had hope. Another election was coming.

Restlessness and optimism, a desire for change, a desire for continuity, dissatisfaction and confrontation, proposal and counterproposal. She could feel the winds of rhetoric gathering, spinning, husting. A need for promises, new and old, would set the public stage and recall her to it. She would be prepared, dressed up, made over, sent out once again into the limelight, a promise renewed, repackaged and reaffirmed. She would smile and bask as she did when she was first made.

Maybe this time it would be for real. Maybe this time she would make it. Maybe this time.

"The Promise" was first published as part of the second FlashFlood, in promotion of National Flash-Fiction Day. More background here.

Saturday 1 June 2013


National Flash-Fiction Day (Saturday 22nd June) is almost upon us. And, as promised some time ago, a couple of things are happening in Bristol, organised together with Tania Hershman, Sarah Hilary, Pauline Masurel and Deborah Rickard. There is a Facebook page for BristolFlash that you may wish to either Like or observe more dispassionately at your leisure, whichever suits you best.

At Bristol Central Library in the afternoon, Tania and Calum Kerr, director of NFFD, will be leading a workshop. Admission is free, but it would be great if you could let us know you're coming either through the Facebook event page or via the corresponding Eventbrite page.

At The Lansdown in the evening, we have gathered an excellent group of writers to read you some of their finest flash. As well as the five organisers and Calum, we also have Anna Britten, Ken Elkes, Dan Holloway, Paul McVeigh, Nick Parker, Jonathan Pinnock and Clare Reddaway reading. Admission is £2 on the door. If you're planning to attend please let us know via either Facebook or Eventbrite.

Hope to see you then!

Friday 17 May 2013

Flash Fiction: College Fund

"Evie, virginity is precious. It's not something to be given away freely — you can't get it back."

Evie's mother offered today's breakfast homily with burnt toast. There seemed no end to the advice sandwiched into the summer between school and university — morality, money, contraception, cooking, computers.

Her mother struggled as much with their bills as she did with their rattling PC. But sometimes she was right. Evie did need a good laptop. The preloved netbook was powerful enough to run the web-design software she planned to use. Her spreadsheet held promising quarterly forecasts for each coming year. She had no wish to be a pauper to her education, a slave to her loans.

Her virginity? Why hold onto something she didn't want? And if she was going to get rid of it, why not profit from it? As her mother said, it was not something to be given away freely.

"College Fund" was first published with The Pygmy Giant. More background here.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Flash Summary

April came and went, as it is wont to do, complete with showers, but mostly chilled temperatures. May has arrived with the unexpected addition of sunshine. Picking up where I left off, I've had a tabloid paparazzi — collective noun for a number of flash fictions? — of flash fiction published in the last few weeks:

In other flash-related news, the NFFD's micro-fiction competition results were announced, with the winning and commended entries readable online. The judging was tough — nearly 450 entries that had, ultimately, to be turned into an ordered list of 10 — but enjoyable.

In personal competition-related news, I had a story longlisted for the Fish Flash Fiction Prize and another picked as a runner-up in the Salt Flash Fiction Prize. My entry, "A Higher Calling", will be included in The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013 due out in a few months.

The Word of Mouth event last month was great fun and well attended. Two readers chose to read flash — Tania Hershman and me — and two chose longer short stories — Holly Corfield Carr and Nick Rawlinson. The pieces I read included "A Higher Calling", "So You Think You Can Cook?", "Authenticity", "Wrecked", "To Catch a Falling Leaf" and "S3xD0ll".

Friday 29 March 2013

Word of Mouth

Some things in life we look to for certainty but find only disappointment in their uncertainty. Spring, for example, has so far failed to spring with anything that might be considered either conviction or temperature. The good news, however, is that April is filled with certainties, if not for spring at least for a couple of dates: 30th April sees the closing date for submissions to the Bristol Short Story Prize and, to help promote this, Word of Mouth is hosting some short story readings on Wednesday 3rd at The Thunderbolt with Bristol-based authors Tania Hershman, Holly Corfield Carr, Nick Rawlinson and me.

In the meantime, here is "Authenticity", my 250-word entry into the Lascaux Flash contest. Next month also sees publication of some of my flash fiction in The Delinquent, The Treacle Well and The Were-Traveler.

Friday 15 March 2013

Flash Fiction: To Catch a Falling Leaf

They say it's good luck to catch a falling leaf. Some say it will bring you a day of luck and happiness, others say a month. A few say you should make a wish when you catch it.

"Is no such thing as luck." Mr Korzhakov might not believe in it, but I could really do with some. Parents are talking divorce, someone nicked my bike, I failed last week's applied maths test, Milly dumped me and Leona just looks right through me.

"What people call luck is just experience of the one in probability of one in N. If you bet heads you have one in two chance. If you get heads you feel lucky, if you don't you don't. If you bet on rolling three, you have one in six chance. If you roll three you feel lucky, if you don't you don't. And so on." Mr Korzhakov sweetened dry lessons in probability and stats with a rambling preamble, before moving on to a syllabus that invited sleep and doodles.

"Not if you use my dice!" Aaron spilt gaming dice over his desk. Mr Korzhakov walked over and picked up a d20, holding it close enough to peer over his bifocals.

"Icosahedron? Is Geometry. Pure maths is Mr Brown, Aaron, not me. But of course, this one in twenty. Bigger N, luckier you feel if you get it. Is why people like to play lottery — N very big!"

"What about bad luck?" I asked.

"Ah, good question, Jim. Is still luck, just different type. You want one-in-six bad luck? Play Russian roulette with six-shooter! You buy lottery ticket? Have more chance of being hit by car than winning! Good or bad, luck just name we give to events we notice but not see bigger picture, when we hope instead of predict."

It's Mr Korzhakov first this morning. I'm about to head through the school gates when I spot Leona on the other side of the road. I slow to match her pace, to think of something to say, to think of a reason to talk to her.

I spot a leaf twist in the breeze and fall from the sycamore overhanging the road. The breeze is gentle enough that I can tell how the leaf is going to fall and where. Golden and crisp, touched by a reluctant autumn sunrise, it hangs in the air for a moment, like an invitation. Luck is on my side. I run, crossing over to catch it before it hits the road, my wish at the ready.

But it falls through my hand. Passes through it. Right through it. As if it didn't exist.

I look up. Leona is standing next to me, staring right through me, her mouth frozen, open, covered by her hand. I turn to see a car, a shocked driver fumbling an emergency call on his mobile, teachers and pupils running towards the gate, a fallen boy on the road wreathed in uncaught autumn leaves.

"To Catch a Falling Leaf" was first published as part of National Flash Fiction Day New Zealand's Write-In. More background here.

Friday 22 February 2013

Acoustic Flash

I finally managed to attend an Acoustic Night Bristol event the other week (28th January). It happens every couple of weeks on a Monday night, up the road from me at Halo. As I'm often away — Mondays especially — the proximity has been more of a tease than an opportunity.

I read a couple of pieces of flash: "I Think I Get It" and "So You Think You Can Cook?". This picture captures a moment of hesitation — I'm either expressing something in an actorly way or doubting my choice of words and punctuation:

As well as the ambience of the place and the quality of the performances, a great feature of Acoustic Night Bristol is that performances are recorded and mixed. Here's mine:

Friday 15 February 2013

Flash Fiction: Measures

She drank beer in pints and wine in glasses (large not small) and underestimated both in units. She smoked in halved fractions of ounces but snorted in multiple grams. She aimed to lose in kilos not pounds because pounds lacked ambition, but switched to pounds then silence as weight lingered then rose. She miscounted Friday nights out while weeks should have been tracked. She lost count of tears when nine months passed and failed.

"Measures" was first published with Paragraph Planet. More background here.

Friday 8 February 2013

Competitive Flash

Following on from the hope expressed at the end of my January posting, my entry in the fourth quarter 2012 Flash 500 competition has reached the shortlist. It might be a bit much to hope it will reach placement in the top three, but I'm delighted it has got as far as it has.

And speaking of flash and competitions, the first National Flash-Fiction Day 2013 competition has been now been launched — and I'm one of the judges. Excluding the title, submissions should be no longer than 100 words. More details can be found here. The deadline is Friday 8th March.

Happy flashing!

Friday 1 February 2013

Flash Fiction: The Cambridge Arms

I find myself in need of a decision. Sunshine, cloudless sky, gentle breeze, late afternoon... and I seem to be standing outside the Cambridge Arms. It's not a hard decision. Let's call it early evening.

"What can I get you?"

Bitter would be my usual, but the association of warm sun and something amber and colder is difficult to shake off. It's a classic bar, but lifted out of the usual woody darkness by tall windows framing sunlit trees. Very picture book. Or advert.

"A Grolsch, please."

Just as imagined, the pouring of the pint, glistening and bubbling, satisfies expectation, an association honed by rose-tinted memories, cultural conditioning and no small amount of advertising.

Sarah says I suffer from too much imagination — a polite way of drawing attention to her patience. It's not just that I over-react to films. Yes, I avoid horror movies if I want a good night's sleep... if we want a good night's sleep — Sarah doesn't appreciate being woken in the real world by me calling out from a dream.

It's an interesting thought I only seem to ponder when I wake but, when I dream, am I still colour-blind? I certainly dream in colour, but I never notice whether I struggle to distinguish red and green in my dreams. I guess, by definition, the not noticing is itself a kind of blind-spot, isn't it?

No, it's not so much the nightmares as the daydreaming, non-sequiturs and tangents that Sarah says I — and she — suffer from. I like to think it makes conversation less predictable and keeps our relationship fresh. I think she likes that. I think.

"Lost between random and surreal. Sarah, you really pick them." Her sister's boyfriend-critique, delivered within earshot and a wine glass of first meeting me.

"I'm right here," I'd said, returning from the kitchen with more wine. Her sister had pulled a smile before starting on her next glass and judgement.

The landlord seems distracted as he finishes pouring. Turning, I can see why. We exchange money, pint and glances. The target of his — now our — distraction is a blonde. She's overdressed and waiting, but for someone, not something, not a drink.

My drink. The first sip is just as imagined. Pleasingly wet, satisfyingly cold.

Her red dress is almost theatrical, a little too movie star for the bar and the time of day. She's gazing into the middle distance, as if something might happen... but might not.

I notice the landlord. His eyes gesture, behind me.

"Andy, what are you doing?"

Ah. Sarah.

"Enjoying a pint?"

"Andy, I was trying to give you directions to the camera shop so you wouldn't get lost and wonder off."

"Yes, you said 'Imagine you're outside the Cambridge Arms'... so I did... fancy a pint?"

"The Cambridge Arms" was first published at Every Day Fiction. More background here.

Sunday 27 January 2013


Once again, January's ability to surprise me by turning up hot on the heels of Christmas never fails to, well, surprise me. Another year, another opportunity to accidentally refer to last year instead of the new one — although thankfully the problem of writing the wrong date on cheques has all but evaporated — and another opportunity to look back while taking the next step forward.

It is now, however, late January and the time for both mulled wine and mulling over 2012 seems well past — if you're interested, look here — so I'll settle for just catching up with some of what's happened since the last blog posting in November... in short, quite a lot.

Just after the last posting I spent a week in wettest, wireless-less Devon on an Arvon course. Totleigh Barton is scenic and isolated and, therefore, perfect for a course. I'll even say the rain played its part in helping to focus thirteen attendees on the art and practice of writing short stories. To say that I learnt a lot, directly and indirectly, from course tutors Tania Hershman and Adam Marek and the other twelve attendees barely begins to capture the inspiration I picked up and took home with me. Write-ups from Tania, Adam, Zoe Gilbert, Selina Siak and Sarah Butler capture the spirit and the substance of the week.

I knew I was returning to the connected world when I had to remind myself how to drive on roads with lanes for each direction of traffic, instead of careful choreography into wet lay-bys or negotiations over reversing back to the last turning.

But there was little time to contemplate the English weather and countryside. It was home and then south. A long way south. Australia. I spoke at the YOW! conference in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney — here is my keynote from Melbourne and my Channel 9 interview from Brisbane — and we all got to admire the sights, heat and photogenic fauna. The children were, however, less impressed that their homework had also followed them across hemispheres.

While all this was going on in the foreground, some of my stories appeared online:

  • "Promises You Can Keep", a short story accompanying Litro's ghost-themed issue. The idea for this had been kicking around my head for a while; it was good to have a deadline to draw it out of me.
  • "Lost Love's Labours", a drabble appearing at The Pygmy Giant. I've read this story out at a few times at spoken word events and it has always been well received, so I was pleased it found a good home online.
  • "The Woodcutter's Stepdaughter", flash fiction appearing at Dr. Hurley's Snake-oil Cure, offering a different take on the events behind a well-known fairy tale. This is another story that has found a good home after being read at a couple of events.
  • "S3xD0ll", a flash shortlisted in the final five of New Scientist's Flash Fiction 2012 competition. It didn't win — that honour went to "Sleep" by Richard Clarke, my personal favourite of the others on the shortlist — but I was particularly chuffed with judge Alice LaPlante's comment: "Witty and structurally sophisticated, this piece also exploited tension in a way that kept readers on their toes." Being on the shortlist a second time was also a good Christmas present.

Along with a couple of other pieces of flash, I had the chance to read "S3xD0ll" just before Christmas at the AlterNativity poetry reading night in Weston. It was the day the world failed to come to an end (yet again) and it was also National Short Story Day, which I felt was sufficient justification to read short stories at a poetry event.

Speaking of NSSD, I was one of five winners of a Twitter competition organised for National Short Story Day. Not only did the story have to fit in a tweet, it was also limited to a maximum of ten words. Here's my winning entry:
Dumped with only Apple Maps for guidance. She'd meant it.
This one earned me a book; the New Scientist comp some Amazon spending money.

That's it for now. I hope to have some more news soon. In the meantime, to conclude with something that brings this post full circle back to my Arvon week, a flash I wrote and received comments on during the week at Totleigh Barton has just been longlisted in the fourth quarter 2012 Flash 500 competition, the second time I've been on the longlist. Let's see if this one can make it as far as the shortlist!