So be good, for goodness sake!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a flash-fiction here. Life’s been busy! Luckily, the Christmas holidays are on the way… so here’s a bit of Christmas Cheer for you. Written for the terribleminds Flash Fiction Friday challenge: Holiday Horror Extravaganza!

So be good, for goodness sake!

We watched them. For seven years we had crept after the boy, Tommy. Watched his dark curly hair and followed his growing obsession with marine life. Shadowed him, close to his heels, watching as he poked about in the river and spent hours in the pet store studying the tanks of bright tropical fish.

We watched them. For five years, silent as ghosts, we had followed on the heels of Sandra, as she stubbornly followed her brother everywhere. She was less interested in the fish, but stared at them because Tommy did.

Every year they had been good. So good. Tommy had protected and looked after his sister, slowing his pace so she could keep up. Making sure she had her coat and hat and gloves during the cold weather and her sun hat in the summer. Sandra had worshipped at the heels of her brother, bolstering his confidence and expressing her admiration for his feats: jumping from rock to rock in the river and persuading the pet shop owner to let him feed the fish each day. Every year they had been good, had left out a mince pie and a glass of milk for Santa. And every year Santa had stopped at their house, peered at us with those icy blue eyes and shaken his head: no.

This year we both felt it. A change. Tommy impatient, hurrying his pace to try and lose his sister. Sandra shouting and wailing, fearful of losing her beloved older brother.

We watched them. A grey February day, the children’s breath steaming in the cold air. Tommy half ran down the river bank to try and lose Sandra. Sandra slipped and flailed as she tried to follow, until her feet went out from underneath her and she plunged into the water with a shriek. She scrambled out, soaked and covered in mud. The wind cut at her like ice. She hugged herself and looked around for Tommy, but he had gone.

She trudged home, frozen to the bone and crying silently.

When Tommy returned from the river, Mum berated him soundly.

“I didn’t know she’d fallen in,” he objected. “I thought she’d gone home!”

We knew the truth. We had watched him look back at the sound of the splash, had seen the moment of indecision on his face. Then he had started running, away from Sandra.

But still, it was only February.

In June, Sandra asked if she could feed the fish at the shop. Tommy refused her indignantly. “You’ll only mess it up, you’re too stupid to do something like that.”

“I’m NOT stupid!” Sandra shouted, fists clenched and cheeks red.

“Yes you are,” Tommy said. “You’re so stupid you don’t even know you’re stupid. Anyway, the pet shop owner said it was a responsibility and I had to do it right. I can’t trust you.”

The next day Sandra came to the fish shop before Tommy, and emptied all the fish food containers into the bin when the pet shop owner wasn’t looking. Then she went home.

Tommy returned home later, sullen-faced. The owner had been furious when he’d discovered the feed missing. “You’ve been drastically over-feeding them! You assured me you would do it properly.”

We watched them. Tommy as he stomped upstairs and slammed his door. Sandra as she smiled a little to herself.

But still, it was only June.

In August, when heat wrapped the country in a sticky blanket, they fell to fighting over a lego piece. Sandra had built a car, Tommy an airplane. Both needed the same part to complete their models.

“It’s my lego.” Tommy gripped the piece so tightly it left a red mark in his fist.

“It’s our lego,” Sandra spat, standing with her hand held out. “You’re meant to share.”

“You can’t have it.” Tommy went to click the piece into place and Sandra made a grab for it. Tommy swung away and Sandra fell on him, her fingers clawing at his hand.

He shoved her away. Sandra growled and kicked out at him. Her foot connected with his shin and Tommy’s face went red. He grabbed her car and threw it against a wall. Lego scattered across the floor. Sandra stood frozen, staring at the mess. Then she let out a shriek and flung herself on Tommy, pummeling with her fists until he managed to grab her wrists and push her back onto the floor. She glared up at him, tears in her eyes, and he glared back at her.

We were excited now. Watching them fight. Our tails lashed back and forth, and we felt drool collect in our mouths and leak down to the carpet where it dissipated like mist.

But still, four months to go.

In October they went to visit their grandmother, out in the country. Their mother drove. Tommy and Sandra sat in the back.

“Can we listen to the Rainbow CD?” Sandra asked.

“I don’t want to listen to those baby songs.” Tommy crossed his arms. “Put on War of the Worlds.”

“I don’t like that, it’s scary.” Sandra stuck out her lower lip. “We always listen to the Rainbow CD when we visit Gran!”

“We can listen to the Rainbow CD on the way there, and War of the Worlds on the way back.” Mum glanced in the rear-view mirror.

“The Rainbow CD sucks!” Tommy kicked his foot against the back of the seat. “I don’t care what we listen to, just anything except that stupid baby CD for idiots.”

Sandra’s face screwed up. “We always listen to the Rainbow CD.” Her voice wavered into a sob.

“Sandra, you and I can listen to it together when we get to Gran’s house.” Mum drove them around a roundabout.

“I want to listen to it NOW!” Sandra bellowed.

We looked at each other, hunched over each child, our tails curled up together and pressed against the rear windscreen, our shoulder spikes jammed against the roof of the car. Seven years I had waited, five years we had waited. Two more months. We stretched our jaws open, lowered our heads to let drool mist away around each head.

In December they strung fairy-lights around each window. Tommy helped Mum carry the box with the Christmas tree inside. They pulled the tree out slowly, reverently. Sandra squealed with excitement as green branches were revealed. They pulled each branch straight.

“I’ll put the fairy lights on the tree,” Tommy said, already reaching for the looped wire.

“I want to do it!” Sandra reached the other end of the wire.

“Come on you two,” Mum said. “It’s nearly Christmas. Tommy, why not let your sister have a go this year.”

“She’s too little, she won’t do it right.” Tommy frowned.

“You did it when you were her age.” Mum took out a bag of baubles. “You can hang these, with me.”

“I want to hang the lights!” Tommy yanked the wire out of the bag. Sandra clung to her end and for a moment they played an intense tug-of-war. Tommy suddenly let go. Sandra, taken by surprise, fell backwards and cracked her head against the edge of the coffee table. She let out a wail, and Mum swore, jumping to her feet.

“Can’t you two get along for five seconds? You know Santa’s watching right? You’re meant to be good!”

Our claws curled around Sandra, the glittering knife edge millimeters from her tear-streaked cheek. We lowered the tip of one claw to her eye, imagined thrusting it home.

Twelve more days.

On Christmas Eve we watched, two shadows in two bedrooms. Sandra awake and excited, listening for hooves on the roof. Tommy half-critical, half-hoping, pretending to sleep. Our hunger yawed inside us, a great and empty space. We longed for flesh.

The clock ticked down. They had been naughty, such naughty children. Santa’s sleigh flew silently overhead without stopping. As his shadow flickered across the window we knew he would not be stopping at this house. Not this year.

We loomed over each child. Sandra’s eyes widened and her mouth opened but we closed our jaws about her head and her scream was cut off before it could begin. Tommy tried to roll from the bed, but we tore his lungs through his spine with a single stroke.

The next morning we woke at the same time. We each moved to the door of our bedroom and smiled at each other as we emerged into the hallway. I touched my small hand to his.

“Merry Christmas, Sandra,” we said.

“Merry Christmas, Tommy,” we said.

 

I hope you enjoyed it! Let me know what you thought in the comments 🙂

Other ‘horror themed’ Christmas Stories for your enjoyment:

ZORK Owner’s Manual

The latest terribleminds flashfiction challenge was a throwback to those old-school ‘interactive fiction’ video games. You know the ones: ‘PICK UP KEY’ … the key is too far away. ‘WALK TOWARDS KEY’… you fall into a hole.

Anyhow, the challenge was to grab a randomised inventory list and turn them into a story. The items in my inventory were:  a gold coin, a platinum bar, a key, a tool chest, Emergency Oxygen Gear, a shim, a ZORK owner’s manual.

The result is a somewhat meta story that doesn’t really stray too far from the source material and will probably only make sense if you’re familiar with the grand-daddy of interactive fiction games: Zork. Apologies to infocomm.

ZORK Owner’s Manual

“What the fuck is a zork?” Sanjay Chopra crossed his arms and leaned back on the metal chair. It creaked under his weight, and a shower of rust fell from it. At some point he would have to get a new chair. And a new desk. His was made from a couple of filing cabinets with a sheet of metal — pockmarked with rust — balanced on top. A metal shim had been wedged under one leg to keep it from listing.

“Insufficient data,” the robot said. The most expensive piece of equipment he owned, this robot, and the most frustrating. It could dig like a motherfucker though, and so far had not broken any of the 20th century debris that it had helped bring to the surface.

Sanjay looked again at the ragged remains of a cover from what had once been a hardback book. The title, spelled out in that long dead language ‘English’, read simply: ZORK Owner’s Manual.

“It could have been a car. They were big on cars back then.”

“I have a record of every known car model ever produced,” the robot said. “It was not a car.”

“So you know everything, but you don’t know what a zork is. Maybe you translated it wrong.”

“It’s a four letter word,” the robot flashed its lights angrily. “You are the archeologist, I am merely a repository for every piece of information we’ve already discovered about life before the Stupendous War. They owned cars by the millions. Cars have not been difficult to learn about. As you well know, Chopra-saab.”

“You are a passive-aggressive little bundle of wires and circuits,” Sanjay heaved himself up from the desk and reached for his protective suit and oxygen mask. More expensive equipment, but without them he would die. Strapped to his belt was a sharp knife. He’d not needed to use it yet, but there were too many stories of mutated monsters out there — ants the size of people, dogs that ran on two legs — for him to ever leave his tent without it. “Let’s head out to the site and see if we can find anything that might shed some light on this little mystery.”

He had constructed his camp near the site, not enjoying long walks. The second he stepped outside the tent — a reinforced steel structure with massive air filters and radiation shielding — the winds started buffeting at him. Screeching, directionless, they pulled him one way and then another. He could see only a few feet in front of him, thanks to the swirling dust and the heavy smoke layer that turned the sky a dingy orange-black. Frost glittered and sparkled underfoot as he walked towards the dig.

The robot followed behind him, its densely packed squat body unaffected by the winds.

They had first dug into the frozen soil a week ago, after the robot had reported traces of metal below. Since then they had cleared the remains of what had once been houses. Only bits of wall remained, tracing out the shape of rooms. A bit of broken off pipe and a smashed cistern had told Sanjay where the bathroom had been. Some melted, misshapen lumps of plastic might have once been kitchen appliances. The metal the robot had detected had been radiators, also melted and twisted. Sanjay had carefully hauled the metal out of the dig and packed it away in the tent. The Collective paid for scrap metal, it was the material from which their civilisation had been built.

There were few possessions left, most of the houses had been raided by the surviving populations: anything that could burn had been burned, anything that could be eaten had been eaten.

Scattered around the perimeter of the house, Sanjay had discovered three empty tin cans. A quick analysis from the robot, and it had told him they had contained: a soft fruit known as peaches, flavoured pre-cooked beans in a sweet tomato sauce, and a kind of pudding made from rice, milk and sugar.

He had eaten his reconstituted cockroach and algae meal pack that night speculating all the time what those ancient foods might have tasted like.

Now, however, he was on a mission. He was determined to find out what a zork was. The Collective would pay good money for new information. If a zork turned out to be important, he might even make enough money to refit his entire office. He allowed himself to dream of it: a desk with a special place for his pens.

“Robot,” Sanjay said as he surveyed the site. “I’ve got a good feeling about this ‘zork’ thing. We don’t leave until we know what it was.”

“You’re the boss,” the robot said.

Two hours of digging and dusting, and Sanjay leaned back on his heels and noticed the tiny, thread-like shape on the horizon. He stared at it, a sick feeling in his belly. Already it swelled in size as it came closer; a twister.

“Fuck.” Sanjay grabbed his tool chest and yelled at the robot to follow him. He raced towards the camp and started to dismantle the tent and throw it onto his conveyor. A quick look back over his shoulder, however, and he abandoned everything except the robot, hustling it aboard the vehicle. The twister had already reached three times the size, the winds picking up around him.

“Come on, come on.” Sanjay jammed the ignition key in and set the conveyor to its top speed. They rumbled away from the site on fat treads. Sanjay clutched the steering wheel tightly to stop his hands from shaking. The wind tore at them, trying to tip them, but the conveyor had been built like a tank; all thick metal and sloping surfaces.

Even a conveyor couldn’t stand up to a twister though. Glancing behind him, Sanjay could see the forks of lightening flickering within the great spiralling body of the twister. The earth screamed beneath it, yawing and shifting, torn upwards and flung aside as the twister fed.

Bits of his tent were flung past him, rolling along the ground. The conveyors Emergency Oxygen Kit ripped clear of its straps and went flying backwards, into the gaping maw of wind behind him.

“Shit, shit shit shit shit shit shitshitshit” Sanjay yammered as he leaned on the accelerator. The soil shifted and rumbled beneath them, the conveyor almost tipping over.

“Move at a forty-five degree angle,” the robot buzzed. “To the west. The twister’s course should take it beside us on the east. With luck we may survive.”

Sanjay jerked the steering wheel to the left and the conveyor’s treads screeched to obey. The wind sucked at them greedily. Sanjay gritted his teeth and willed the conveyor to stay attached to the ground. Something slammed into the dashboard next to his gloved hand. Glancing down, Sanjay saw a gold coin half buried in the metal. The conveyor moaned as its treads started to lift off the ground.

“I will not die here!” Sanjay shouted. The conveyor bumped back to the ground. Sanjay glanced to his side, saw that the twister had drawn level with them but was angling off in the other direction. He was so focused on tracking it, that he never even saw the building emerging from the soil until the conveyor slammed into it. Sanjay catapulted over the handlebars and slammed against a brick wall. He slid down it, thankful for the protective helmet and suit he wore and collapsed in a heap at the foot of the wall. There, he waited for the storm to die down.

An hour later, the sky was a flat, hazy orange and the dust had dropped. The land had been reconfigured by the twister, Sanjay had no idea which direction he’d travelled from. The tread marks of the conveyor had all been blown smooth, and the conveyor itself smashed beyond the limits of his portable tool kit. His tent, survival gear and salvage was gone: buried somewhere in the wasteland around him.

“We are a seventeen day walk from the nearest Collective outpost,” the robot announced. It shook itself, dust showering from its sides. “My battery will not last that long.”

“I won’t last that long.” Sanjay sucked on the nozzle at the side of his helmet that led to his water canister. He looked over the conveyor, pulling the gold coin free from the dashboard and examining it. At one point there had been a portrait of a person in profile, but it had worn away so that Sanjay could not tell who it was meant to be. He stuffed the coin into a pocket and turned to the building.

It was one of those rare buildings that had survived the war relatively unscathed. Only the top story was visible, the rest buried in sand. A blown out window stood at elbow height. At one point it had been painted white, flecks of paint peeled away from the brick.

“Might as well take shelter in here for the night,” Sanjay said. “Work out what to do in the morning.”

He stepped into the building through the window, the robot following him. Sanjay flicked on his helmet torch. It flickered over white walls and came to rest on a sword and a lantern, both gleaming as if new. Sanjay blinked at them, stunned by such an anachronistic detail.

He tracked the light across the floor and up onto the wall. Plastic letters had been stuck to the peeling paintwork. Sanjay blinked as he read them. “Zork? Does that say Zork?”

“Affirmative,” the robot said.

“What the fuck is this place?” Sanjay moved towards the door and stepped out into a hallway. A couple of bags had been dropped halfway along, and Sanjay kicked one of them open. A pile of plastic blocks fell out, each one stamped with the words ‘platinum bar’.

“This is some weird shit.”

The robot, a few steps behind him, did not reply.

Sanjay opened the other sack and discovered a lunchbox, the food long since rotted away, and a withered root of some kind.

The hallway led to a flight of metal stairs. Sanjay descended them, drawn to the lower levels of the building as if by instinct. He’d always been a digger, had always believed the greatest treasures were the ones you had to extract from the soil.

Cockroaches scuttled over the walls, away from the light of his torch. Sanjay kept descending the stairs until they expelled him into a stone basement. There were no windows down here, and the floor had only a thin layer of dust.

Sanjay shone his light around. No furniture, but in the very centre of the room there was a round trapdoor.

“It might be another group of survivors.” Sanjay rushed towards it, examined the seal. Groups turned up every now and then. Often just a small interbred family, with hollow bones and white skin and no idea of how many generations had passed. Sometimes, however, they found another group, with equipment, skills and a different culture. Sanjay couldn’t even imagine how much he’d get paid if he found a group like that.

“There is writing on the wall,” the robot said. “It reads: the wise traveller bewares the Grue.”

“Zork? Grue? I’m starting to think we’re about to discover something pretty major.” Sanjay hooked his fingers under he trapdoor and prised it open. His helmet torch penetrated only a few feet into the inky darkness below, enough to see the rusty ladder that led downwards.

Sanjay looked up at the robot. “Coming?”

“I don’t like this.” The robot whirred. “I hope you’re right and there is another group of survivors down there.”

“What other explanation could there be?” Sanjay grinned at the robot.

The two of them descended into the darkness.

Other stories inspired by randomised inventories

Great Acting by antipelican. A funny story about a drunk actor on a path to learning some life lessons (maybe).

Never Swindle a Swindler by D.J. Davis. Swashbuckling thievery pretty much always amuses me. There’s a great sense of a bigger world as well.

 

No trouble

Another week, another terribleminds flash fiction challenge! This time the prompt was bad parents and we had 1,000 words. I really wanted to stay away from the whole ‘starvation, drunken rage, cigarettes getting stubbed out in painful places’ kind of story. Not because those things don’t happen, but because there’s only three ways for those stories to go. It either ends in tragedy (kids die), triumph (kids escape and/or kill parents) or stasis (isn’t it dreadful).

At the end of this post I’ll link to a few of my favourite stories that other authors have written in response to the prompt.

No trouble

I throw the slivers of chicken into the pan with the onions and stir. The pink meat turns white, the oil hisses and spits

“Sarah?” Her voice, thin and scratchy, crackles over the baby monitor. I bite my lip, stir the chicken and add a splash of stock to stop it from burning.

I go upstairs and open the door to my mother’s bedroom. She lies there, propped up against her pillows. Thin, skin translucent, crazed with wrinkles. You can see all the veins in her hands, wrapping up and around those knobbed knuckles. I stare at her hands and avoid looking at her face.

“What is it, Mum?”

“I’m thirsty.”

“Would you like a glass of water?”

“A tonic water,” she says. “With a slice of lime. A thin slice. I don’t want the lime to overpower it.”

My heart sinks. “We don’t have any lime.”

“Can’t you go to the shop?”

“The corner shop won’t have them. I’ll need to drive to Tesco, and that’s fifteen minutes there and back. I’ll go after I finish lunch, okay?”

Silence. I stare resolutely at her hands.

“I don’t want any lunch,” she says. Her voice quavers.

“You need to eat. It’s almost done. I’ll get the lime as soon as I’m done cooking.” I try to make my voice firm.

“If your father was here—“

“But he’s not here,” I cut her off. “I’m in the middle of cooking. If I leave now it’ll be ruined. I’ll go after lunch. Do you want a glass of water?”

“No.” Her voice is sulky.

She starts to sob as I close the door.

While the chicken and carrots finish cooking, I take a separate pan and make the gravy. Butter, flour, stock, herbs, a slosh of white wine. I add pepper, hesitate, then add another shake of pepper. Last time she told me there wasn’t enough pepper, that it made the meal bland. I take her plate, the special china one with the blue swirls around the edge. I shape the carrots into a pyramid and place three pieces of chicken in a fan shape next them. I use the back of a spoon to swish an arc of gravy on the other side of the plate and stand back to scrutinise my handiwork. I add a garnish of fresh parsley, dropping it onto one of the chicken pieces.

I put the lid on the pot to keep the heat in, then put her plate on the tray. I take out a tumbler and pour some tonic water into it. I’ll take it up to her, and then go and buy the lime.

When I open her door the sobbing starts again, little hitches in her throat.

“Please don’t work yourself up, Mum.” I carry the tray over and put it down on her lap.

“No lime,” she says.

“I’ll go and get you one now.”

“Don’t bother,” she says. “I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

“It’s no trouble. I just didn’t want to go while lunch was cooking, and—“

“I know how hard it must be, looking after your old mother. I remember how hard it was for me, when I had to look after you.”

“Mum—“

“Oh! I slaved over your food, and you wouldn’t eat a bite. I tried everything, organic baby food, pureed dinners, I spent an hour once making a special soup out of roasted squash and you just threw it on the floor.”

“I was a baby.”

“You were always as good as gold for your father. He’d come home and you’d eat any old rubbish. You never really loved me, of course.” Her voice cracks. She knows I can’t stand it when she talks like this.

“I love you Mum, you know I do.” I pat her hand awkwardly. “Look, just eat your lunch. I’ll go to the shop now, you’ll have your lime slice as soon as I get back, okay?”

She heaves a deep sigh. I head for the door, but before I can reach it there is a clatter and crash from behind me. I spin round.

She’s knocked the tray onto the floor. Gravy, carrots, chicken, all over the carpet. The tumbler rolls across the floor until it knocks into the leg of her bedside table. I bite my lip.

“Oops,” she says. Smiles.

I don’t answer. I pick up the tumbler and the broken bits of plate and put them on the tray. The food goes in the bin. I get the vacuum cleaner and suction up the rest. There’s a gravy stain, but I can deal with that later.

I go downstairs, put on my coat. I’ve worn through one of the elbows.

Tesco is busy. I don’t see anyone I know. Most of the people I went to school with have moved away. Sometimes I see Kate, but she’s always too busy running after her toddler to see me. She isn’t here today. I buy the lime, smiling tentatively at the woman behind the checkout. She gives me a blank smile in return.

When I get home I stir up the remaining carrots and chicken and give it a quick blast of heat to bring it back up to temperature. I take out a new plate, build the pyramid of carrots. I fan out the chicken, swirl the gravy.

I pour the tonic water, slice the lime nice and thin. The tonic fizzes when I drop the slice in.

I carry the tray upstairs. She smiles as I bring it to her bed.

“Oh, you sliced it just right. And look, you made such a pretty gravy swirl.”

“Thanks, Mum.” Happiness blooms in me at her words.

She cuts a tiny piece of the chicken, puts it in her mouth, chews. “It’s a little dry. You left it standing too long. And there’s too much pepper.”

“Sorry, Mum.”

“Don’t be silly. I don’t expect you to take any trouble over your old mother.”

Some other stories about bad parents

These were my favourite stories written in response to the ‘bad parents’ prompt.

Beneath One Wall, Inside Another by JP Juniper. Great sense of time and place in a short word-count, and just enough detail about the children to whet your imagination.

No such thing by Chris White. Such a fantastical story and original setting. I would love to see this world developed further.

Deals with the Devil by Alex. A sharp toothed story about the way society regulates women’s bodies, especially those of mothers.

My Writing Process – Blog Tour

I was tagged by fellow-writer Louise Gibney (also known as Miss Write!) to participate in this writing process ‘blog tour’. Louise’s first novel Girl Meets Boys is unfortunately no longer available for sale, but I’m eagerly awaiting her second novel — which she has said is “a story of family, grief, personal discovery and development.” She also writes tons of fantastic articles on her blog.

Louise asked the following questions:

1. What am I working on?

Writing Process: Moonstruck
Stock images by wyldraven and DigitalissSTOCK.

My second book is a science-fiction/horror called Moonstruck. The hero, Stephanie Walker, joined the Space Navy to escape her past and has worked her way up to First Mate despite being grumpy, violent and unsociable. Disliked by her crew, she’s nonetheless their only hope after a monster starts killing them with abandon. Luckily, she has the help of new recruit, Daniel, and she realises that they are much stronger working together than she ever was on her own.  The book is currently about 20,000 words short of its second draft.

I’ve also tentatively planned out the sequel to The Rising Wind and hope to start on the first draft of that soon.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

In a lot of science-fiction and horror, you’re often left with a ‘last survivor’, a lone hero who rises above impossible odds. In this book, I wanted to flip that a little bit, and show a group of people overcoming differences and working together to survive. As for whether they do or not, I guess you’ll have to wait and see…

More generally, I try to include a lot of diverse characters in my writing. The Rising Wind, for example, features a gay couple, but the book isn’t about that. They are just like a normal couple, and the alternate reality that they live in – whilst it has a lot of problems – really doesn’t have any prejudice about same-sex relationships. (At least at this point in its history.)

3. Why do I write what I do?

I grew up reading almost everything I could get my hands on. Sci-fi, detective novels, classics, Mills & Boon, historical romance, straight historical novels, trippy post-modern stuff, everything! I really like combining lots of different elements together in my work. There’s always nearly a fantastical element, but my stories are rooted in a world quite like our own. I also have opinions that some would describe as radical, and I like to explore how some of my ideas would play out if they became a reality.

4. How does your writing process work?

I’m still refining my process, and I’m terribly slow. It took me well over five years to write The Rising Wind. I usually have to spend ages writing ‘around the characters’, stuff that helps me understand who they are and how they think, but which won’t ultimately make it into the final story.

Anyway, here is my current writing process:

I start by writing out a few scenes in Scrivener, just to get a handle on the world and the characters. I call this a first draft, and it’s normally puked out and rarely has any decent ending.

Then I use workflowy to rough the story out, chapter-by-chapter, and scene-by-scene. (I used to use excel)

Then I re-write in Scrivener. I love Scrivener because it lets me drag and drop scenes around and stops me thinking of the book as the linear a-to-b thing. I give each scene a couple of labels, one is the POV and the other is the state its in. I’ll move around the story at random, so you’ll get some scenes that have been re-written several times and are close to ‘final draft’ and others that are still ‘stuff happens’.

Once it’s in a fit state, I send it to beta readers and get feedback. They are usually good at picking up the odd gaping plot hole.

The last step is to hire an editor to go through it. They usually send back lots and lots of notes, and we work each scene two-or-three times.

Short stories I skip a few of the steps here, but they still get re-written quite extensively. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and written the story I first came up with. They always end up evolving!

Other writers to check out

Cybelle Pauli – A fellow member of the nanowrimo group on Facebook, Cybelle writes some interesting feminist poetry.

Laura Hayley – Another member of the nanowrimo group, and writes over at Quaktaculaura. I’m delighted to see her giving my favourite form of prose writing a go – namely the short story. I thought her latest one, Black and White, was particularly poignant. I wish her the best of luck getting her manuscript accepted!

Matt Holland – I’ve had the opportunity to see Matt’s writing evolve over the last few years. He’s developed a fantastic and unique voice. Biting, funny, with great characters. Definitely check out his Gallaetha novels!

The blog turned twenty

I picked up on this tidbit of news as I was browsing through my feedly list.

A blog I follow, Six Pixels of Separation, linked to the Guardian article. It would appear that the once new and exciting blog has become a comfortable middle-aged pastime.

I started blogging when I was about 17. That’s twelve years in which I have more or less continuously written about my life, my thoughts, my politics and my experiences.

The early days of blogging

I started with html files on a site built in notepad. My blogs were pretty short, and mostly about my life: what I got for Christmas, my thoughts on Buffy, my school lessons. At the same time as this blog I was also trying to run a fan-site with a little guestbook that later became a massive forum.

After I got tired of manually updating HTML files all the time, I moved to Greymatter, (my first experience of open source software!). Greymatter was lovely, it had such a pleasant feel to it. But when it was abandoned by its creator I ended up writing my own php script and coupled it with a mySQL database.

That – and my forum – were how I learned to program for the web. Those programming skills ended up earning my keep when I became an adult. Who knew my silly blog would have such an impact?

The rise and fall of LiveJournal

I also started journaling on LiveJournal. Blogs are public, or have very clunky privacy controls. Livejournal was the first example of a platform in which you could choose who saw which post. I had lists of friends, some of whom were privy to my my soul-searching existential angst, some who saw only my posts about what I got for Christmas. I started writing on LiveJournal more than my ‘real’ blog. In LJ I told my deepest secrets to people I hardly knew. That was part of the point: there could be no come-back, no messy consequences. As a result, I made many close friends all across the world.

Those friends would later put me up as I travelled around the States, making a trip that should have been prohibitively expensive pretty cheap and amazingly fun. Who knew that turning your private diary into a semi-public affair would end up earning you a circle of such fantastic people?

I’m still on LJ, though everyone knows it isn’t what it used to be. It’s not that LJ has changed, it’s just that we’ve grown older (and the young uns are on tumblr and snapchat and other things I no doubt don’t know about).

When blogs grew up and started showing up at the office

After a while I moved away from my own custom php blog onto some of the platforms that had been built by others. MoveableType I never got on with, but eventually I stumbled upon WordPress… and I never looked back. (This current blog is built on WordPress, and most websites I build for clients are on the same platform)

As I came out of University I became desperate to ‘make money online’ and started several blogs for that purpose. My first scared me with its success and I abandoned it in confusion: it was a blog about how to write, one of my posts went viral on StumbleUpon and I suddenly realised that I, a young woman with nothing published and a mere 3-year degree in Creative Writing, was not the right person to be trying to teach writing. I made, perhaps, 50p out of googleads.

I later tried a minimalism blog, a permaculture blog and even a personal development blog but my heart was not in any of them. Meanwhile, other bloggers were making six and seven figure sums. Blogging had become a profession, a bit of a kooky one, but one that could make serious money.

About this time I got my first proper job, and to my surprise it involved writing for the web, and notably blogging. I wrote under a pseudonym, and I wrote about how to write video games. The blog was moderately successful, and my pseudonym was even offered a book deal (it never came to fruition, alas). I was essentially being a paid a (fairly measly) salary for what I had used to do as a teenager: namely blog, mess around with HTML, and talk about video games. Nobody was more surprised than me.

The truth was though, the web in general had become far more professional and far more corporate. Teenagers still built sites in HTML with tiny fonts and big picture backgrounds. But in the grown-up world user experience, conversion rates, SEO, and money, money, money was the name of the game.

At the same time as I was being paid to blog about video games, I also started writing under my real name as part of a group blog about gaming. The blog was called girlsdontgame and is now, sadly, defunct. It was probably the most successful blog I’ve ever been a part of, however. The posts were popular – I went viral on stumbleupon again – and eventually we came to the notice of some big league game companies.

EA invited me to San Francisco – paid for my long distance flights and my hotel room – and I was given early access to some Sims games, plus a goody bag of freebies. All because I enjoyed writing about the video games I would have played anyway. But companies like EA knew that people read blogs for reviews, not magazines. Bloggers were more honest, more personable, and much more diverse. They took unique perspectives. And they argued with each other. They scored hundreds of thousands of visits.

Companies still blog, and companies still court popular bloggers.

Hello, my name is Social media

Then came MySpace. Blogging was part of MySpace, but it was much more informal. Later, MySpace became Facebook. People tried to predict the next Facebook, but instead… twitter helped the internet to explode. Different types of social platforms sprang up everywhere; platforms for photos, platforms for videos, platforms for long-form writing, platforms for readers, platforms for microblogging, platforms for sharing music (that was MySpace making a comeback).

I was still blogging – trying to find a way to capture that early magic – but I was also trying to be on every social media platform in existence. The internet was…. diversifying. Rapidly.

Welcome back to today

These days I write on LiveJournal, which is still the place for my angst and sadface. I post to Facebook about my life and share photos of parties and events. I keep this blog, which is semi-professional and a great place for deeper, more thought-out posts about the world. In my day-job I manage an NGO blog integrated into our Drupal CMS. I have a tumblr, where I share silly gifs and rabid politicism and less well-thought out rants about the world. It’s an ecosystem that seems to work for now, but no doubt it will shift again in the future.

One thing is for sure. I’ll always be blogging in some shape or form.

100 novels: The Tale of Genji

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Tale of Genji

I wanted to love this book.

It is, reputedly, the first novel ever written. Written in the 11th century by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, it is a book that is incredibly important for its impact on novel writing as we know it today. It is important in what it tells us about court life in Japan in the 11th century.

Initially I quite enjoyed it. It read more like fan-fiction than anything else, with Genji the ultimate in fantasy men, as he falls in love with various court women and eventually marries someone who is – according to literary scholars – a stand-in for Murasaki herself.

I will confess, I abandoned the story before this marriage.

The problem is not that it isn’t good; it is a deserved classic. The problem is that taking on a sprawling novel set in an ancient Japan is quite a challenge. It is a novel about domestic intrigue and power-play in a world so utterly different from the one I live in that it becomes almost impossible to relate. The characters communicate with each other by writing poetry, a form of writing I find difficult at the best of times. There is no plot, it is simply a musing on human relationships.

It is hard for me to write a fair review of this book. Many people will love it; many already do. But for me it was simply a step too far from my comfort zone.

 

100 Novels: Midnight’s Children

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

Midnight’s Children


I actually read Midnight’s Children last year, so I didn’t need to re-read it. I was glad to see it pop up on the 100 novels list, however, because it was one of those books I absolutely loved.

First some background. Midnight’s Children falls into that genre known as magic realism. The novel is set against an historical background, which is India’s move away from British Colonialism towards independence. However, the writing is full of fancy, with supernatural acts and the whole novel really symbolism layered over symbolism.

The narrative is complex, being an story of his life that the central character, Saleem, is telling to his wife-to-be Padma. His story is unreliable, based on his memory and full of digressions, foreshadowings, flashbacks and commentary with the result that much of the book is left open to interpretation.

To me, the book is about how people and history are one and the same thing. That where and when a person lives will impact on who they are, but equally they shape history and become a part of the changing face of our world. Saleem considers himself a chosen child ‘handcuffed to history’, but in truth there are a thousand and one others like him — the ‘midnight’s children’ of the title, all born at the exact moment that India became independent — and in truth his story does not climax in an act of any great significance; Saleem finishes his life as a chutney maker and prophesies that he will fall into dust in the very near future. In some respects, Saleem is India, he represents her, but in other respects he no more represents india than any of the other characters he comes into contact with. India is more than one person, far greater in depth and complexity than even the most significant and noteworthy of human lives. Yet equally, India is only the sum of all the human experiences that make her up, without human perspectives and human lives there would be no such thing as a country or history.

The book is a masterful creation; with details within details. You could discuss the meaning of the characters and the scenes endlessly, and it would be a brilliant book for a book club because of the controversial themes and ideas that run through the novel.

But unlike many ‘classics’ this one is joyful. There is a sheer love for storytelling that comes through, and the nod towards an oral storytelling tradition only deepens the enjoyment. I can easily see myself coming back to this novel again and again, thanks to the beautiful writing, and the complex themes that run through it. It’s the kind of big, bold book that make you love reading and shows you what a masterful writer can really do.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Sex scenes which were actually essential for the story

Recently, over on Tunblr, I have been engaged in a discussion about George R.R. Martin’s inclusion of the rape/de-virginisation scene of a 13 year old girl, and whether it was, you know, actually necessary. I sit in the camp that the whole thing is creepy and gross, and completely unneeded. However, usually what happens after I state that a sex scene is creepy and gross is that people assume I think ALL sex scenes are creepy and gross.

Which I don’t. And in that spirit, I’ve decided to compile a short list of sex scenes that I think actually served a purpose within a story, rather than just being there as a sort of ‘oh look they are having sex!’ type scene.

1. All erotica ever

Well, yes. Because the point of erotica is to be titillating and to get you off. So pretty much if you’re reading erotica you are hoping for sex scenes in their dozens, if not hundreds. I’ll also include ‘racy romance’ in this category, since the pay-off is the characters getting together and sex/marriage is pretty much the way that gets signalled to the reader.

Why it works: Because the sex is the point.
Shop for erotica

2. The sex scenes from Choke

Choke is Chuck Palahniuk’s novel about a sex addict, who goes to a sex addicts 12-step program. So it kind of figures there’s going to be some sex in this book. You’ll either love Palahniuk, or you’ll hate him. But given half the point of his books is to push right to the edges of what is acceptible and to try and make you feel uncomfortable; the sex in these books is pretty fundamental (and not really written to turn you on or make you think of sex in a positive way)

Why it works: It’s part of the nihilistic, taboo pushing backdrop to the book and an essential part of the character
Shop for Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

3. The rape scene in Clan of the Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear is the first Earth’s Children novel, and whilst the novels very quickly go downhill, and even the first is filled with rambling purple prose that you can easily skip, it’s also one of the best explored and logically thought out ‘alien’ cultures. Ayla is a Cro-Magnon girl who ends up growing up with a group of Neanderthals. There is a point where she is repeatedly raped, but because of the society she lives in, the rapist can carry out his crime pretty much in the open wherever he wants. The consequences of the act have a massive impact on Ayla, from a character development point of view, but also lead to her child.

Why it works: It isn’t romanticised, it’s written from the female character’s perspective, and it permanently changes both her character, and the nature of her relationship with the rapist (not to mention the rest of the clan)
Shop for The Clan of the Cave Bear: Earth’s Children 1 by Jean M. Auel.

4. The sex in all of Robin Hobb’s books

Robin Hobb writes Fantasy, but she writes grown-up, incredibly well thought out fantasy with complex characters. Sex turns up often, but it always feeds into our understanding of character, advances or complicates the plot, helps the character come to terms with or understand aspects of themselves, and generally is realistic and often beautiful. Did I mention I love Robin Hobb? I love Robin Hobb.

Why it works: Robin Hobb is a genius for character
Shop for books by Robin Hobb

5. The sex in Earthly Powers

Earthly Powers is an Anthony Burgess novel that opens with a fairly infamous line that references sex. It is a giant novel that explores morality, humanity and religion and you can’t really talk about any of those things without talking about sex. Read the book, it’s great.

Why it works: It’s irreverent and playful, and underscores the main themes.
Shop for Earthly Powers

6. The sex in The Illuminatus Trilogy

A book by Robert Anton Wilson, whose stated goal is pretty much to get you to trip the fuck out. There is a rather memorable sex/death scene involving an apple (I won’t tell you more than that).

Why it works: It’s part of the whole magical mind-bending sixties sexual freedom vibe.
Shop for The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Suggestions from others

  • Rochefort and Dariole from 1610
  • Woman on the edge of time
  • Anything in Diceman
  • Swastika Night
  • Lolita
  • The Time Travellers Wife

There are many more examples, and it would be great for people to share any that they think worked particularly well – using sex to develop character, illuminate a main theme, or for some other reason that you think makes it work.

To Kill a Mockingbird

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

To Kill a Mockingbird


It’s hard to know what to say about To Kill a Mockingbird. It is, probably, the closest thing to a perfect book that I can imagine. When I saw that To Kill a Mockingbird was on the list, I instantly knew I had to re-read it. Like Lord of the Rings, I first read this book in my mid-teens. Unlike Lord of the Rings, I loved it from the start.

The book is about many things: growing up in the deep south, rape, racial and gender inequality, and what it means to be heroic. Despite the heavy-hitting themes, the book itself is filled with warmth and good humour. The character of Scout is incredibly sympathetic, and we see her transition from a childish world of bogeymen and fairy-tales to a nuanced grasp of the world around her.

Despite almost universal praise, there have been a few criticism of the book. One of the central problems is that the issues on show are so cut-and-dried there is almost no scope for discussion. It is incredible clear that Atticus is the only sane one, that Tom Robinson is innocent, that Mayella is lying – but that it is not her fault, for she has so clearly been threatened and damaged through her life circumstances.

(In fact, Mayella jumped out at me as a character on this read-through. She damns an innocent man, but her life is so utterly hopeless; it is insinuated that her father rapes her, that she is beaten regularly, that she is almost solely responsible for raising a houseful of children… when I first read this book, I was not very interested in her, except in so far as her story impacted Tom. On the second read-through I found myself horrified at the thought of what this young woman endured, and the contrast of her life to that of Scout’s.)

There is one other issue that has been highlighted. Despite racial inequality being at the heart of the book, the black characters themselves are not as complex or deeply written as even the most auxiliary of white characters. Tom is a victim, through and through, he seems to have given up on his own life without even the spark of defiance. Calpurnia has been described as a ‘contented slave’, and it is true that, despite having effectively replaced the role of Scout’s dead mother, she still fits firmly into the ‘hired help’ mould.

That, more than anything, dates the book. Today, a book about racism that did not contain several strong non-white characters would be rightly condemned. There is too much niceness in this book; Atticus says it is not right to hate Hitler, there is a strange attempt to help his children ‘understand’ Bob Ewell after Tom Robinson is killed, and there is no real attempt to break the institutional issues that have given rise to such circumstances. The rabid dog is rabid because of a disease; the town is racist because schools prevent intelligent children from reading. Because the government will not tackle generational ignorance. Because Mayella is left to live in unspeakable conditions. Because everyone turns a blind eye to the neglect and abuse of Bob Ewell, not to mention the strange behaviour of the older Radley and Nathan Radley. Because black people have their own church and their own seats in the jury room. Because of the way Mrs Grace Merriweather talks about the ‘poor Mrunas’ in front of children.

These are problems that may start to be solved by giving a black man a fair trial, and certainly Atticus appeared to risk his life. However, the deeper, knottier problems are not so easily resolved, and this book does not even attempt to answer them except with a sort of ‘everyone should be more like Atticus’ mentality. Perhaps the questions are too big and too far-ranging to be answered in a single children’s book, but nonetheless, we should be on guard against the idea that simply being nice will unpick those generational problems; the consequences of which we still live with today.

Having said that, this book has done a great deal of good and in its own way has attempted to challenge those deeper institutional issues simply by being published and read so widely. The key is to think of it as a starting place, and then to go forth and do better.

(Photo credit: Hart Curt)

M is for… Music (to write to)

The letter MThis post is part of the A-Z Blog Challenge.

I could share a lot of music with you. I adore music, and enjoy everything from heavy metal to dubstep to electro to reggae to rap.

However, instead of simply listing of all my favourite songs (which could take a while), instead I wanted to share with you the music I am listening to whilst writing my upcoming novel (as yet untitled). Each song evokes a specific mood or theme for the novel, and I switch between the songs depending on what the scene is about.

The playlist is below:

Cosmic lycanthrope

When writing The Rising Wind I was less dedicated, cycling through several albums. However the two main characters, Tabbi and Denise, had their own theme songs:

Tabbi

Denise

When choosing music to write, I find it’s rarely about the lyrics but more about the mood that the song conjures up. It is this that makes music so special – that I can put on a specific song and within ten seconds be feeling epic, nostalgic, jazzy, contemplative or just flat out despairing.

I would love to hear what music you listen to for inspiration. Do you have specific character themes? Do you have an album that you associate with a particular book or story? Let me know in the comments (or on twitter: @suziehunt).