We started the blog because we wanted to practice writing stories, and to talk about what writing (and reading) means to us. Over the last few years we’ve showcased a number of short stories of different lengths, genres, voices, and you can find these via the Index.
We run a monthly prompt for #FlashFiction (used here in both senses: a short story that can be read quickly, and one that is written within a short period of time). We like to go with quirky prompts (again, have a look at the Index!), and we mix in a few photoprompts together with one of our USPs, the Gutenberg Prompt – have a look out for these. We’d love to get more people involved with these, so do spread the word.
We post every Sunday, following a regular schedule. As of January 2020, we’ve revamped this slightly. We’re still presenting our stories, and one of our other USPs, #SecondThoughts, but we’ll be adding some features on the items on our Resources page, together with a new series of articles written by guests on how their chosen genre is entwined with their normal life.
If you’d like to find out more/get involved, please do take a look at the About page. Or you can send us a message via the Contact page or our Twitter handles (above).
Our (revised) regular schedule
1st Sunday #FF Prompt – submission deadline the next Sunday @ 8 am GMT
(or use our #TortoiseFlashFiction page if the deadline is too tight)
2nd Sunday #FF stories
3rd and 4th Sundays
A #SecondThoughts piece from David or Debs (except for those occasions when we’ve been able to persuade a guest to write one for us!).
A focus on one of the resources on our resource page, or on something else of writerly interest.
Occasionally a short story from one or another of us.
Exactly what turns up will depend on what we’ve been doing, and what is going on in the wider world.
5th Sunday On the occasion when these occur, we’ll be posting our guests’ musings on the intersections between their life and their chosen genre. (Do get in touch if you’re interested in writing one yourself). The post that kicked it all off is here.
Censorship is a touchy subject, and rightly so. No one wants to wake up and discover that they are living in 1984, and that they’ve committed seventeen thought crimes before breakfast. No one wants to wake up and find that the firemen have come to burn your books. No one – well, maybe recent events suggest that there are those who would like to move in one totalitarian direction or another, that they would quite like to give up free thought and just do what they are told.
I don’t know about you, but for me a mix of books is essential in order for different ideas to collide, for inspiration to spark when two concepts get short circuited by adjacent neurons in my brain. The best ideas come from the bringing together of widely different precursors, like the BFG mixing dreams. On that basis, reading different kinds of books is crucial.
But is there ever a case for banning a book? Anne Fadiman mentions in one of her essays that her father turned a book around on the shelf because he didn’t want her reading it – which of course gave the book added glamour and allure. Parental censorship has a time-bound quality to it: once you are of age, if you still have the will you can look up anything that your parents stopped you from reading when you were younger. And of course, teenage rebellion will see to it that a ban is defied. This is writ large when the State assumes that parental authority and decides that it is in the public interest for a book to be banned.
Some people have played the system: James Branch Cabell’s sales went up dramatically when he was taken to court on obscenity charges by the League for the Suppression of Vice. On the other hand, Banned Books Week is an international effort to raise attention to the practice of censorship that is going on around the world at this time.
But I return to the question, is it ever justifiable to ban a book? Last year I read the amazing ‘Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire’ trilogy, by Rod Duncan (which, incidentally, I cannot recommend highly enough). At the heart of the story is the International Patent Office, which is suppressing knowledge and stifling invention, for reasons that only really become clear towards the end of the trilogy. One of the things that can be said as a criticism of this suppression is that it leaves social change almost completely stagnant. Imagine if, living today, women didn’t have the vote, indentured service was still a very real possibility for those not paying their debts, and anyone who doesn’t conform with the societal norms of two to three hundred years ago is a pariah at best. But a justification can be made.
As a younger man, I would have said that there was never a reason to ban a book, but now older, and more appreciative of nuance, I begin to wonder if there can be a case for banning a book. This new view is perhaps informed by the changes that we have seen in how experts are viewed. Back in 2016, Michael Gove declared that the public had had enough of experts, in part because no economist would back his view of Brexit. It’s the kind of meme-worthy idea that has taken root, but it is not always clear when it is being used ironically.
I’ve seen a couple of books recently that have the potential to be quite harmful. The worst part is that they come from people who are positioning themselves as experts, but have no authority for these expertise (except the ‘University of Life’) and provide no literature for the support of their views. I feel that there is a case to be made for banning them – but perhaps the better stance is to ignore them, to promote the good books.
What’s your view? Is censorship ever justifiable? Who gets to decide? Are there any books you would ban?
It was somewhere we went from time-to-time. Nowhere exciting, just a place to stretch the legs, to take a snapshot or two, and to get a breath of fresh air – a breath of sea as it came up the mouth of the river, but without having to endure the crowds at the beach. We visited in all seasons, in all weathers except pouring rain, and nothing exceptional ever happened – until our trip to catch sunset.
We’d gone with the intention of capturing the sun setting over the airport, for it’s a gorgeous Art Deco building, and the fading light meant the outlines of the modern aircraft wouldn’t spoil those gorgeous strong curved outlines. We got there early – it wouldn’t do to be ill-prepared, and scouted the area, crossing back and forth over the bridge to check out the best vantage point. Eventually, we left the bridge and walked along the riverbank closest to the airport, taking our shots as the sun made it’s magnificent progress across the airfield. The setting sun blazed against the turquoises and pinks of the sky, and as the windsock gently fluttered in the breeze and as the light faded, it was all too easy to picture the black and white hues of an old film – men and women walking across the tarmac having dressed formally for travel, their outlines showing off the hats which were de rigueur at the time, and although It wasn’t possible to see, you just knew the women were wearing gloves and carried those big structured handbags over their arms.
As the photographic possibilities of the airport were exhausted, we started to walk back. As we strolled, light escaped via those windows with undrawn curtains in the houses on the opposite bank, the striking reflections they created in the water catching my eye. Giving the appearance of hundreds of fairy lanterns, as the movement of the water in the gentle evening breeze caused the reflections to flicker. Snapping off a few more quick shots, I took a moment to stop, to just look around and to listen.
The bridge itself formed a stark outline against the darkening sky for there were no houses to backlight it. The old timbers taking on a somewhat sinister appearance in the darkness. Worrying about the uneven path back to the car, I called out that I was starting to walk back. A wave acknowledged I’d been heard, but seeing the tripod being set up, I realised he’d be awhile yet. Deciding it would be wise to retrieve the big torch from the car and return, I drudged off, lighting up the path ahead using my phone.
Approaching the car, I could just make out the outline of the cable telegraph signpost it was parked beneath – although I could barely see it, it was so familiar to me, I could all but see the strands of ivy curling around its once bright paint, now faded and rusting. Packing away my camera, I collected the torch, switching it on to ensure it worked. No trouble there – it threw great pools of light ahead of me, picking out details in the darkness. The skeleton of that wrecked old wooden boat alongside the bridge gave a ghostly feel in the torchlight, the seed heads lining the bridge doing likewise as they swayed gently in the breeze.
Without cyclists, dogs and walkers there to distract me, my thoughts drifted to the memorial on the bridge, placed there for those who’d lost their lives in the plane crash a few years before. Earlier that afternoon, we’d visited the new memorial on the other side of the bridge – a reflection of the many wooden boat skeletons, it had been fashioned in highly polished steel, engraved along the ribs with messages from the loved ones of those who’d died that day.
For the first time, it became clear why the bridge had been selected as the location for the memorial. Not only was it where people regularly walked, but in the quiet and dark, I could easily imagine hearing the voices of the recently lost, as they joined in with the voices of those lost over time – perhaps from those old wrecked boats. Although the rapidly fading light and stark outlines would normally cause me a sense of unease, I was surprised to feel in good company, as I picked my way back along the riverbank to where the darkness was about to totally engulf him and his tripod.
The Detective Inspector shifted in her seat slightly but overruled the temptation to look at the DC r s sense the waves of confusion directed at her, and made a note to do a proper debrief afterwards. Normally she would have let the constable ask some questions, but the interview had gone in an unexpected direction and so she kept the reins to herself.
“Right. I think I’ve got this straight, but I’d like to check a couple of details.” Opposite her, the young lady who’d been in party clothes a matter of hours before, sat dejectedly in paper coveralls. She gulped, nodded, and went back to staring at the dried blood that crusted her nails.
Alexa hated her name. The teasing at school had been mercilessly, with a grinding barrage of requests from the banal to the kind of lewdness that is peculiar to 16-year olds. She’d had the opportunity to reinvent herself, and had tried the casual ‘Lexi’ and a couple of other variants before settling on the uncompromising ‘Alexandra’. As she had chosen the name, so the name had shaped her; her mannerisms and mode of speech became more appropriate to an Alexandra, and her circle of friends changed too.
She’d been coming home from a night out clubbing, walking familiar, well-lit streets, although with less directionality than if she’d been entirely sober. She’d meandered towards her shared digs having got separated from her housemates at some point in the evening. If she’d had a few more drinks then what happened might not have happened at all.
The fresh air was, well, refreshing, but only the liver and kidneys can make you sober again. Thinks started to go wrong for Alexandra when she entered the Market Square. This was definitely not on the direct route home. She’d started to feel uneasy, but for no particular reason. It was a full moon, and very bright, causing all sorts of shadows that you wouldn’t get at any other time. The exit she should have taken made her more uneasy, the one that would lead her further off course somehow seemed to be the right one.
On and on, into the night. Error compounded error, as unease blocked her from going home. Buildings seemed to loom over her like a headmaster towering over a child sent for correction. Deep shadows held nightmare creatures. And so she’d reached the courtyard. She’d never been there before, and the alleyway she’d taken to get there was one she would never normally have taken drunk or sober, especially at that time of night. But her she was, and as she emerged, something came at her and instinctively she pushed it away. Anxiety had given way to fear, fear to terror: the selection of ‘the right path’ had done nothing to assuage this. Somewhere, unarticulated, buried beneath the haze of alcohol, obscured by the staccato drumbeat of her pulse, was the feeling that she was being herded. Terror lent her a strength she didn’t know she had and the lurching figure went stumbling backwards, tripped over a doorstep, and hit the cobbles far too hard. Alexandra screamed at that point and timidly went to check on the prone figure. The hand that she put down to support herself as she kneeled found a sticky pool, and she realised it was blood seeping from the figure’s head. She screamed again. Lights came on in the windows overlooking the courtyard.
In daylight, the detectives tried to follow the route that Alexandra must have taken from the nightclub to the scene of the…incident. Some of the choices she’d made, turning off one street and onto another, taking this exit from a square or small park rather than that one, seemed completely bizarre. The Detective inspector tried to block out all the noise and hubbub of normal life, all the thoughts trampling around in her head, and just take in the surroundings.
But the effects felt by Alexandra were not to be found by daylight, nor even simply by moonlight. The streets themselves awoke only rarely, begetting fear and terror on those few capable of feeling the consequences of the way the architecture of this part of town had been moulded. And with the blood sacrifice, the shaper was propitiated. For a time.
No, that tree isn’t a whomping willow come to life to try and kill you, and no, the street isn’t turning into some sort of cthonic entity!
Psychogeography is the interaction between psychology and geography. I’m not going to put it any more strongly than that, but if you want more detail, then you should check out this explanation by fabulous folklorist @icysedgwick.
So for this month – our fourth anniversary – the prompt is to imagine yourself taking a walk – it could be somewhere you are very familiar with, it could be a place you want to go, it could be somewhere you found on Google Maps. Bonus points though if it is the first place that sprang into your mind when you started reading this post. The story can be any genre you like, but usual caveat of not NSFW.
500-1000 words please by 8am GMT – Sunday 13th September.
A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below. If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line.
Two caveats if you want to go down this route: if you want to retain the copyright, then you will need to state this, and this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.
Keith Willis is someone, like many in the #writingcommunity, that I’ve met online, usually via Twitter. The writing community on Twitter is amazingly supportive, but in this respect Keith is a prince amongst men – a veritable elder statesman in his kindness, especially to those finding their feet on Twitter, at the writing game, or at life. If I were tempted to get a tattoo, I might very well go for “Be more Keith”. But his kindness, humour, and wisdom aside, Keith is a perfect guest for our ‘Now with added…’ slot. As you’ll know by now, if you’ve been following along for a while, we invite writers who we’ve found to be particularly associated with a specific genre. Keith is the author of the Knights of Kilbourne series, and he’s going to tell us a bit about how knights and dragons intersect with his life in upstate New York…
Thank you, David and Debs, for extending the invitation for me to participate in “Now with added…” But I have to say, this examination of the intersection of life and fiction has caused me a great deal of rumination, agita, and head pounding. As a writer of fantasy fiction, I don’t really deal in the niggling details of “real” life and thus wasn’t even sure where to begin.
So how does my fantasy world intersect my life? When I was wrestling with this dragon, David prompted me by asking, “Would you visit/live in the world you’ve created?” And when I thought about it, my answer was, “In a heartbeat.”
I love the world I’ve created, and I think it would be a marvelous place to live. Kilbourne is (call me a traditionalist) a fairly idyllic placed, based on an amalgam of Scotland and Wales and set in a rather Renaissance era. Books exist in my world. So do clocks. But no gunpowder-based weapons; my heroes and villains battle with barbed words, edged swords, or fists.
Kilbourne is a world not so very unlike our own. It’s a world of gallant chivalry and base cupidity. Of loyalty and honor, and duplicity and deception. Of politics and intrigue, of romance and wonder. In my fantasy world, while there are no megalomaniacal overlords out to subjugate the masses, there are certainly despots seeking power through conquest. Set against those, there’s no long awaited Chosen One, but simply people trying (and often failing) to do the right thing.
It’s a world of—and here’s the “added” bit—magic and dragons. And this is why I want to live there. Our own mundane world is seriously lacking in both categories and, it might be argued, would benefit from a bit of both (Game of Thrones not-withstanding). I long for a world where magic does indeed work, and where majestic dragons soar the skies.
I think that’s why so many readers gravitate to fantastical fiction. It’s that subtle “What if?” that allows us to view the world as it might be, if things were just a bit different, had that little “added…”
And yet, in a small way, my life does actually intersect my fantasy world, by way of the Renaissance Faires I attend each year. There, for the space of a weekend, I can be immersed in jousters and jesters, royals and rogues, wizards and witches, brigands, bards, and barmaids. I can soak up the magic that fuels my stories. I can also engage with the folks for whom I write them. Because they, like me, are seeking a piece of the magic. And so I get an earful of what they like (and don’t like) about fantasy. And because I have to be in character, I can magically become someone I’m not—the gregarious, garrulous scribe known as Friar Keith. I can tell awful jokes and get away with it (“I used to be a Friar, but I got so plump the Abbot made me a roaster…” bah dum tsss). I can shamelessly flirt with a wanton gypsy gal (if only because she happens to be my wife).
One thing I’ve come to realize over the (relatively short) course of my writing career is that all fiction is, in fact, fantasy of a sort. We writers make it all up as we go along (except for the memoir folks, and I’ve often wondered if even some of their work may be more conveniently contrived than factual). But while all fiction is fantasy (small “f”), not all fiction is Fantasy (capital “F”). Those of us who write Fantasy add that little bit extra—the magic that make our worlds go round.
No matter what stage you are at in the writing/editing process, the subject of what to call your book will be on your mind at some point. If you’re one of those lucky people, safe in the knowledge you’ve already got a fabulous title in mind, the following is likely to be of limited interest. For the rest of you, read on …
“Thinking up pretty, witty and epic sounding titles is the last stage in finding the perfect name for your book baby. Start your search by uncovering the heart of your story, the features that define your novel and give it its soul, and refine what you find from there.
Before you know it, you’ll have a title that has readers plucking it off the shelves, a title that is intrinsically connected to the story it belongs to. Because they’re the titles that readers remember.”
On then to the worksheet. Although Kirwin uses this quote to close the detailed and informative blog post which accompanies and supports her workbook, I felt it was important to start with it.
As with many other “how to” guides, Kirwin starts with a review and gathering process, with hers broken down into three primary sections – Names, Story and Meaningful. The Names section covers characters, settings/location, time period, any key object/event. The Story section includes major themes, character goals/motivation, key conflicts, and key terms which relate to the story’s genre. Finally, Meaningful is for bits of dialogue/narrative, words or phrases describing or fitting characters, and any meaningful words or phrases that don’t fit anywhere else. In each case, the blog post provides examples. Using the mind map templates (or your own), you are encouraged to develop each, adding descriptive detail as you go.
The next pair of worksheets are entitled Splurge and Word Class. The blog post goes into considerable detail on the Type of Words you might consider for your title, again providing examples of which you may choose and why, whereas Splurge is the place for just dumping any and all ideas.
So, cutting to the chase, would I recommend the workbook? Yes I would. I found it useful as it made me consider aspects I’d not before, especially the section on types of words, and how the use of different types of word could convey a particular meaning.
But I did also come across some other excellent works on the subject. For example, Kristen Kieffer made the observation that character-driven stories are often named after the protagonist, or the themes revealed through the protagonist’s story arc. This could save you time in the review and gathering process as there are – potentially – less aspects of your story to review. But it was this question about plot-driven stories which really struck me :
“If you’re struggling, ask yourself what lies at the crux of your story. What element, if removed, would utterly deflate its plot?
Without the Hunger Games, for example, Katniss wouldn’t have had to volunteer as tribute to save her sister. Neither would the Pevensie children have found their way to Narnia if the lion, the witch, or the wardrobe did not exist.”
I also found this post at iUniverse helpful in that it addresses some basic Rules, but their 10 tips also addressed the gathering process slightly differently :
1. Consider the essence of your book. What is your book truly about? Is there an underlying theme that runs throughout your story? How about a universal concept or feeling?
2. Look over your book’s text. Are there any lines that jump out at you? Are there phrases that sum up the theme of your book? Is there a trait in the main character that runs through the storyline?
3. Add perspective. How do your characters see themselves? Do they have a specific flaw or quality? When and where does your story take place? Does your story have a unique perspective?
4. Consider the visual. Is there a special setting in your story? Can you describe the uniqueness of the main setting or destination?
5. Add some mystery. Pique readers’ interests by teasing them a bit with your title.Create a question, mention something of meaning without explaining it or express your book’s main theme as a dilemma.
6. Research best-selling titles in your book’s genre. Notice the titles that stand out to you and consider the elements that drew you to them. How can you replicate that effect in your title?
7. Search for words in the dictionary. Flip to a random page in your dictionary and look over the words. Do any of them stand out? Add them to your list and repeat.
8. Consider song lyrics and lines from poems and other books. Are there lyrics that fit with your book’s genre and theme? Are there poem lines that pop out to you? Just stay mindful of copyright.
9. Free write. Jot down every title, word or combination of words that comes to mind.
10. Change up your words. Try adding an adjective or verb to the main idea of your book. Use your character’s title or role. Exchange a more commonplace word for a more powerful, descriptive, uncommon word.
Once you’ve got your short-list together, sleep on it before making your decision. Then, if you’re still unsure, do some testing, get some trusted (or random) opinions. Finally, check back to Faye Kirwin’s quote above – is it a reflection of your story’s heart? If not, you probably need to re-think it.
What methodology do you use for deciding on your book’s title?
A couple of years ago, I wrote about Nigerian authors, admitting it was only in recent years I’d started to read output from this country, despite having lived there for six years during my youth. But, following a mixed reception given at my book club to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s masterful work Americanah, I wondered if the work of Nigerian authors may have limited, rather than widespread appeal.
Except that, pretty much ever since I’ve had that thought, the world has been proving me wrong – or at least those who hand out literary awards …
2019 Booker Award
Girl, Woman,Other, Bernadine Evaristo – co-winner An Orchestra of Minorities, Chigozie Obioma – shortlisted for the second time My Sister, The Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite – longlisted with her first published work
2019 Women’s prize for Fiction
My Sister, The Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite – shortlisted Ordinary People, Diana Evans – shortlisted Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi – longlisted
There are (many) other examples, but I don’t want to turn this into one long list …
This recent breakthrough onto the world stage follows a discernible pattern evident in African awards. 2019’s Caine Prize for African Writing (an award celebrating the diversity of the African short-story writing tradition) listed two Nigerian authors in it’s shortlist of five. Now in its 19th year, Nigeria has provided a quarter of its previous winners. Similarly, the 25-name shortlist for 2019’s Brittle Paper Awards (for African writing), contained a staggering 10 authors from Nigeria.
Of course Nigerian authors have been receiving awards for quite a while, most notably Wole Soyinka’s Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, Ben Okri’s Booker in 1991 for The Famished Road, and Chinua Achebe’s International Booker in 2007, but much of the early international success was achieved before the country’s independence from Britain in 1960. Years of military dictatorship followed, and when international publishing ambitions were stunted, many authors joined the rush of intellectuals deciding to leave the country, to build new lives and new families overseas. For those authors who stayed, the situation could be perilous – Wole Soyinka received a death sentence ‘in absentia’, while Ken Saro-Wiwa hung in 1995.
Nevertheless, the success achieved on the international stage by early pioneering Nigerian authors encouraged the literary ambitions of the new generation of Nigerian authors we see now. In 2015, the British Council reported the “incredibly vibrant literary scene in Nigeria itself”. Indeed, the last 15 years has seen a significant rise in the number of publishing houses in Nigeria, meaning authors don’t have to go overseas to seek publication – which had been the norm previously. Nigerian authors themselves are growing in confidence, no longer feeling they need to translate their use of Nigerian English – as one author said recently “there’s no need to italicise or explain, they can Google it!” I also cannot deny how tremendously pleased I am to see increasing numbers of women in this group.
Last but not least, the first Ake Arts & Book Festival had it’s inauguration in 2013, and has since gone from strength to strength in celebrating Nigeria’s cultural & literary identity.
Some among this new generation of authors chose to remain in Nigeria, some have made their homes elsewhere, there’s also a number who count both Nigeria and another country as their home. But there’s no doubting they’re now regular faces on international prize lists, receiving both admiration and acclaim. I’m hoping this rise in the success of Nigerian authors on the world stage will see increasing numbers of readers being introduced to this rich literary vein.
The mouse’s nose twitched as it lurked in the very entrance of it’s lair in the wainscoting. The scent of cheese was a tantalising strand in a web of such odours that richly filled the small, cramped workshop, and it drew the mouse out into the candlelit night. A clock on a shelf struck the first note of midnight.
The cheese and it’s accompanying bread belonged to the figure hunched over the workbench, and had been long forgotten. Bahrd, Edgesmith, in exile from his people and his guild, picked up another delicate piece of mechanism and fitted it into it’s assigned place in the clock he was building. It’s twin sat to one side of the bench, already complete. There were two curious features about clocks, one of which the clockmakers of this benighted land knew, and one which they did not. They knew, though not why, that even two such identical clocks could not keep perfectly in time, one with the other. What they did not know was that, to some extent, this deficit could be overcome by attaching both clocks to a single spar. Bahrd could have explained the physics that kept the pendulums in sympathy with each other, but this was a Guild secret, and, too, it was doubtful that anyone here would understand. Still, Lionel the Venturer was paying well for these clocks and he must finish them before daybreak.
Bahrd reached for another tiny cogwheel that needed to be placed just so, picked it up delicately with a pair of tweezers and just as he was putting it in its appointed two place, two other things happened at the same time. His ear caught the clock starting to strike midnight but the mouse twitching its nose again went unremarked.
If it had been capable of making such distinctions, the mouse might have felt that the note struck was rather sonorous for such a small clock. But the mouse was incapable for two important reasons. Firstly, it was a mouse; secondly, it had been frozen in time.
It was only when the piece was in place and he was thinking about the next that Bahrd realised that he had only heard the bon- and no accompanying -ong. He looked around and saw the mouse.
The mouse did not move in ten heartbearts, and neither did the clock on the shelf. Bahrd sighed and pinched the bridge of his sharp, pointed nose.
He lined up his delicate watch making tools. Thus soothed, somewhat, he glanced around the room. The fire in the grate had long since burned down to the merest sullen embers; the candle had burned down too, but the flame was still bravely dancing above the last half-inch of wax. Or it had been until it too had been frozen in place, bent mid-flciker. Bahrd sighed again.
Barhd thought for a moment and then took a delicate glass goblet down from the shelf and filled it with water from a carafe. A pattern of ripples formed immediately. Bahrd dipped a stubby finger into the water and then made the goblet sing by delicately wetting the rim and running his finger around it.
There was a modulation in the note that rang out, but it was very faint, and Bahrd could not discern meaning, although he was sure that it was there. He quickly improvised a hearing trumpet, such as an elderly person might use to stop younger people from shouting at them.
Bahrd help me!
“If you can reach out this far and stop time, what need you of me? I cannot match that power.”
In this I am powerless. I need an agent, one who knows our ways. My daughter is trapped.
“And there is no other?”
No other. Please come.
Bahrd grumbled under his breath, but more for the sake of form than from any real belligerence. He pulled on boots, a many pocketed waistcoat with various tools tucked away, just in case. An Edgesmith may not always have the perfect tool for any situation, but where there is a will, there is a way… Hard grey eyes interrogated the room. Was there anything else that he needed? On slightly more than a whim he grabbed the carafe and without waiting further touched his fingers lightly to the water. A moment later, only the still frozen mouse kept vigil in the workshop.
At this point in the long hot summer, the mighty river Socatoa was a whisper of its winter-self. Still, there was enough power here for the river-god to have transported Bahrd over a thousand miles from his workshop. The light of dawn washed across the river, causing points of brilliance to dance redly even on this green-brown silty surface. A bubble formed within the torpid water and rose to the surface, disgorging the Edgesmith onto the bank. Bahrd drew himself up to his full five feet and looked around. He was on the shore formed where a tributary joined the river. The stream had dwindled under the heat of the sun until the barest trickle meandered between the rocks on the bed to join its parent. As if to underline the obvious, a finger of water pointed up the tributary, attempting to make jabbing gestures as it rolled with the flowing water.
Bahrd carefully put the carafe on the bank and hoisted himself up beside it. In some ways, the easiest path might be to follow the course of the river, but who knew what might be found further up. Picking up the receptacle, he noted landmarks and set off.
He did not find the spot where he needed to be until early in the afternoon. By now he was in amongst some low hills and the passing of ages had cut the normally fast flowing stream deep into the earth. He’d come out a little higher up the valley then he needed to be and so started to find a way to scramble down. The gorge was surprisingly green; the sides were thick with trees of many different types and ages. Several had fallen, perhaps loosened from precarious perches as the ground dried out around their roots.
Despite his careful steps, there was a nasty moment when he slipped and the carafe leapt from his hands, seemingly determined to dash itself to pieces. He reached a hand to it just in time, kept it from the ground and juggled it back under control again. His reckless downhill progress brought him to the bank of where the stream should have been, and he saw what had happened. The water, much restricted, moved only through certain channels at the bottom of the river. The Naiad had become stuck in a pool left orphaned by the low water. Whether by design or misfortune, the pool was rimmed with rocks of magnetite, and even Socatoa could not reach through this barrier.
“Hail! Your father has sent me to aid you.”
A limp hand appeared, from the surface of the water. Bahrd approached and saw that the stones were polished and rounded. They did not appear to have been simply tumbled into place, but had been positioned with purpose. He suspected that the naiad had wanted a place where she could be private and not in constant commune with all her kind. Things had nearly gone very wrong. He placed the carafe in the pool and quickly rearranged some of the stones. They should still provide the privacy required in the future, but now there would be a way to escape too. A face flitted across the pool and appeared to nod in approval.
Bahrd picked up the carafe and worked his way back to the bank and then followed the water course further upstream. He didn’t have too far to go until he found a waterfall and a deep pool of water beneath it.
A bell-like note rang from the glass carafe; he knelt and gently emptied it into the roiling water. A shape he couldn’t quite make out leapt and dived and leapt again from the water, joyfully exuberant. Suddenly a hand reached from the water, much more animated than the first time he had seen it, and ran gently up his arm, coming to rest on his shoulder. He didn’t even have time to curse as, unexpectedly, the hand took a tight grip and pulled him into the water.
He stood once more in his workshop, bone dry, the stroke of midnight complete. Barhd broke off a piece of the cheese and placed it in front of the mouse. Sitting back down on his stool, he picked up the tweezers, and with them the next piece of mechanism. There was still a clock to complete, after all.
On the Stroke of Midnight – it could be something that’s already happened, something that’s expected to happen, something you fear could happen – your choice!
Be it fairy tale, thriller, steampunk or romance, pick your genre and write (with the usual NSFW proviso)!
Up to 750 words – on your marks, get set go! Deadline: 8 am on Sunday, 9th August 2020
A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below. If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.
One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.
When David & I first wrote November Deadline, our bad guy Bunty was little more than a cipher. The idea of doing a chapter or two from his perspective was tossed back & forth, but with four main characters (as well as a couple of vocal minor ones) already telling the story, we decided to leave well alone during the Challenge itself.
Those particular time restrictions now behind us, we’re filling out the story, and there’s now room for Bunty to have a voice. I did the initial rough draft of those chapters in a telling rather than showing manner, but when I came to re-draft them, I realised with something akin to horror that, even though he’s my creation, I’d no clear idea who Bunty was. While existing chapters already deliver a comprehensive picture of his looks and his political views, that was it … for he was that stereotypical baddie – all darkness, with no depth or nuance.
As a first step, I went through the original manuscript, pulling out every reference to Bunty, to ensure I didn’t contradict what’s already there – at least, not without intent and in the full knowledge of what needed re-writing. In so doing, I came across an exchange of dialogue with Jack I’d totally forgotten about (probably because David wrote it), which helpfully answered a couple of questions I was asking myself about his manner of speech (whether it was old-style and formal, or if he used a more modern selection of vocabulary), but I knew I was still missing the essence of Bunty.
David recommended Mind Mapping, but while procrastinating, inspiration struck! Deep from the recesses of my mind, I dragged up a memory of the multitude of “interview your character” questionnaires I’d saved on Pinterest absolutely ages ago, for Pinterest is yet another of those places I stockpile potentially “useful stuff”, only to forget all about it …
Two immediately jumped out of the mass – the first being a blog post from the pen of the wonderful K M Welland, which contained questions from her book Outlining Your Novel. I’m ashamed to say this book not only sits on my shelf, but has been read from cover-to-cover – clearly the old synapses weren’t firing properly, for I did not recall the terrific resource I had right to hand. The second was another blog post, this time from the team at The Write Practice, and forms a set of questions attributed to Marcel Proust. If these two don’t float your boat, there are plenty more to be found here.
I sat at my keyboard with a fresh cup of tea to work my way through both questionnaires. Much to my surprise, I was able to answer each question quickly and with little thought – so it turns out Bunty wasn’t such an unknown character after all, I Just needed to dig him out of the deep recesses of my mind via some well-thought out questions.
Mind Mapping ended up being a bit messy and didn’t give me any particular insights, so I turned instead to a Word Cloud … and the result was delightfully unexpected. Just so you know, whenever I produce a word cloud for inspiration, I don’t apply any weighting to the words as I like to see what the fates may offer me in the form of insights. The only word in the list I entered with a capital letter was Nazi (yup, my inner grammar – ahem – Nazi was at work there), otherwise all were lower case and in the same font.
Please accept my apologies for the dreadful quality of the image which follows – it was a snapshot taken of my PC screen (for yes, I did have technical issues during lock-down, but am sure I wasn’t alone in that), and also for the horrendous typo – but, you see, I couldn’t not include the result …
For yes, buried among the obviously unpleasant aspects of Bunty’s character, those questions I’d answered revealed he was an unloved child – lonely, needy and unhappy. And suddenly, Bunty wasn’t a cipher anymore. Yes he’s a bully, but being writers who study human behaviour, we know that particular path is filled with those who’ve followed it in order to divert attention away from their own perceived weaknesses.
Although I can now see the unhappy child behind the man, the following saying plays an even more significant part in my overall assessment of Bunty …
I still don’t like Bunty, even though I think his character is more rounded and has depth. All I need to do now is to re-write those chapters …
The subject of beta readers is a surprisingly contentious one. At one end of the spectrum you have those who think you shouldn’t move without consulting one, and at the other people who wouldn’t touch a beta with a 10 foot barge-pole. For this post, I’ll be taking the view laid down by the Anglican church with respect to confession – all may, some should, none must.
The term has been around for comfortably more than a decade, and has been borrowed from the software industry. A quick look round and I can’t find an exact etymology for the term, but it looks like a label that was first applied in the earlier years of this century, but a practice that was in use before. This is something widespread – think about all the books you’ve read where the author acknowledges those that took the time to read the book before it was published, and provide feedback. Sometimes this is limited to an editor, sometimes there is a longer list, varying from a couple of people to a full blown cabal.
Every now and again the #WritingCommunity on Twitter starts discussing this, and I’m sure the same is true of other social media writing communities, not to mention the various real-life groupings and courses that are out there. Recently I saw a particularly vociferous response against the use of betas. Stripping out the emotive rhetoric, the argument can be summed up as ‘you should have the courage to write the story you want without interference, it’s your story, not someone else’s’. It’s not a terrible point, and does show that you need to be careful about how you use beta readers and why. The major problem that I had with the article (aside from the damning of everyone else’s opinion out of hand) was that it was shored up by the example of the pulp writers of the early 20th Century, people who were batting out copy at a ferocious rate. They, the writer argues, didn’t worry about beta readers, and neither should you. The problem with that, I think, is that there is some very bad writing in that oeuvre, and it would have benefited from a read-through. It was written, however, at a different time for a different market.
So why use a beta reader? Is it just from lack of confidence? Is it just a desire to have your ego stroked? There are a lot of people out there talking about what they are writing and the problems that they are facing. There are people who go through round after round of edits and don’t seem to get anywhere, and don’t want to show anyone what they’ve written until it is perfect. There are things that make perfect sense in our heads, and we think we’ve made it clear when we put it down in black and white, but it is all too easy to make a ‘magic step’ that we know is there, but the reader, without the support of what’s in our heads, falls down.
But it is worth being careful about who your beta readers are, and you do need to be careful about how you use them. Dumping your MS on a friend is unlikely to be useful. You don’t want someone who is just going to be kind, you want someone who will tell you the hard truths. You don’t someone who is just going to read through your MS, you want someone who is going to engage with it.
You’ve spent time and effort getting this book together, it makes sense to make sure that it is as smooth as possible. You might get different feedback from different people – that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing that you have to deal with. It’s your story. You’ve written every word, but you’ve jumped back and forth adding and changing bits as a result of changes in direction that you’ve taken or issues that have cropped up that you didn’t plan for. Does your story still make sense? Have any of the characters done anything uncharacteristic? Are there any plot holes that you’ve overlooked? Your betas, if you use them, are not just another reader: they are there to help you, but make their life a bit easier and tell them what you would like them to focus on – and you might have a different set of instructions for a different beta. Everyone has their strengths (and weaknesses) and it pays to know these and work to them, where possible. I’d strongly recommend reading Debs’ take on this, too.
I mentioned earlier that the term was one borrowed from the software industry. It’s also one that is evolving and is in a bit of a fight with other terms too. It’s important to be clear what you’re looking for in a beta. Sometimes beta is being used when really we should be talking about an alpha reader. Not everyone uses an alpha reader, but some people are lucky enough to have someone they can trust to try very early drafts on – particularly helpful when things are not gelling properly. Critique partners can fulfil a similar role in a different way. In the gig economy, people are putting themselves out there as beta readers for hire. These people are not editors and often their only link to writing is that they like to read a lot. Good on them for finding a way to make their hobby pay, but be careful – what can such a person offer you?
All may – it can be helpful, it’s worth considering, but it’s your story, and you need to remember that when looking at feedback.
Some should – we’ve all read stuff and we wonder what the editor was thinking allowing certain things through. But perhaps they didn’t have a strong enough relationship with the writer to say ‘I think you need to change this bit’.
But, none must. It’s your story, and if you think it’s perfect, send it off to an agent. They might disagree, whether or not your book has been read by a beta. But don’t just do what your betas say – at the risk of repeating myself, it’s your story.