The Top Five Writing Decisions I’ve Made So Far

Photo by Angie Garrett

Photo by Angie Garrett

Like many of you, I’ve been a keen reader since childhood. Reading was an escape when my loving, boisterous family overwhelmed me, when the world was quiet and friends slept, and the television pixels seemed to zap energy rather than give it. I started with Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Judy Blume and was hooked from there. I harboured a dream to write, but it took many years before I began to pen my own stories, and the birth of my children to crystallise my goal of being a writer. Our eldest is now five years old. In those years of learning to be a mum, though writing speeches, briefings and proposals were part of my day job, I took the first real steps to making fiction writing my career.

Daydreams are fun, but in reality a writing career does not emerge overnight. Lady Luck does not suddenly propel you to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List or award you the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction overnight. It’s all about work. The hours at a desk, the battles with doubt, pouring over craft books, the notes scribbled at school pick up because you’ve found a detail that is just perfect for your story, nurturing relationships, attending conferences, and trusting strangers with your work. So much of this is pleasurable. And so much of this is hard. It’s a marathon, not the 100m. These repeated acts, month after month, year after year, they are what makes a writer.

I’m still on that path. There are certain things that have taught me a huge amount and made me braver. They are:

1. Setting writing goals and meeting them

After years of daydreaming it was key for me to prioritise writing. I made sure my loved ones knew how important it was to me, partly so they could hold me to account, but also to claim writing as part of my identity. I set both short and long-term writing goals, one of which is to write every day. I try to not let more than a day pass without putting pen to paper, even if it is just writing in my journal. This mindset was the biggest shift I made, and I find if I don’t write regularly my contentment nosedives.

2. Reading craft books and blogs

Photo by Celes

Photo by Celes

In the early days, when I was still building my confidence, it helped to read craft books such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing. I also like Renni Browne’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I find it helpful to read blogs by fellow writers both for motivation and tips. Blogs by Emma Darwin, Kristen Lamb, Chuck Wendig, K. M. Weiland and Ksenia Anske are amongst my favourites.

3. Starting a blog of my own

I have about 1000 blog readers currently and have been blogging for nearly two years. I post once a week and my website draws about thirty views a day and spikes with #MondayBlogs and #WWWBlogs traffic. I could be better at self-promotion and SEO, but even as it is, blogging has taught me valuable lessons about courage, meeting deadlines, staying the course and what resonates with readers. And I have made wonderful friends since the start of this journey.

4. Social media and online communities

Platform-building is important, yes, but it’s the relationships that are the most enriching here. I use Twitter and my Facebook author page most of all, and have G+, Instagram, Pinterest and Goodreads accounts, which I use to varying degrees.

There are wonderful communities that can be found through hashtags such as #MondayBlogs, #WWWBlogs, #ArchiveDay and writing challenges such as #FridayPhrases, #FlashFriday and NaNoWriMo, as well as Facebook groups. My favourites there are Ally Atherton’s Writer’s Soapbox, Anna Meade’s Dark Fairy Queen and Her Brilliant Minions and Jennifer Blanchard’s The Emerging Author Incubator.

You might be sitting in a turret all day writing your novel, or at the kitchen table when everyone else is in bed, but these groups help keep the loneliness at bay and can lead to lasting friendships and great collaborations. Just beware that the flip side of social media is that it takes time and can be addictive. You’ll know to scale back if your writing output suffers.

5. Finding a critique group

Photo by Pauline Mak

Photo by Pauline Mak

My husband is my first reader. He has a keen eye for the rhythm of a sentence and character motivation, and he’s not afraid to tell me when something is not working. Even so, there are drawbacks with getting feedback from loved ones. Will they tell you the truth? Do they know enough about the genre and the craft to know what works and what does not? Feedback from family and friends paints a picture, but there comes a point when external review is critical to getting your work polished enough for publication.

First, I began using beta readers and critique partners. Then six months ago I wrote a post about using critique groups to accelerate your learning as a writer. I discussed how critique groups are a valuable tool, but can also damage your confidence if you are not quite ready to expose your work to scrutiny, or the group is not the right fit for you. At the time, I was thinking about finding my own critique group and the article reflected my thought process, though I was still wary about entrusting my work – and my ego – to a group of strangers. I didn’t want my confidence to be crushed. In fact, for a time I considered carrying on in my little bubble.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s part of the philosophy about improving ourselves. Do the work. It’s far better to be aware of your flaws and to hone your craft, than forfeit your chance to be better. When the opportunity came to apply for Write Draft Critique: The Virtual Writer Workshop, founded by M.J. Kelley, I took a deep breath and decided to go for it.

It’s the single best decision I’ve made this past year.

The workshop took place over a seven-week period. It happens online, in a way that allows those with job pressures and families to fit the work around their schedules. It is a remarkable set-up, with the founder, group moderators, new and established writers all submitting their work for review and writing critiques. This sets up an egalitarian review system despite the difference in experience levels.

Some people submit work which has already been prepared; others write as they go along. Critiques are given both on the manuscripts and in long form. The magic of the Write Draft Critique set-up is, I think, in the people who run it, and the clear guidelines they have established. It is an intense experience. I was fearful, and steeled myself each time I read a critique of my work, but the trust and rapport built up within the group incredibly quickly.

I now have a better understanding of what to watch out for in my work and what I do well. I learnt that I can operate at a higher speed without compromising quality, but I need more training to keep up that level for any length of time. I have a better sense, thanks to my critique group, about where I need to ‘kill my darlings’ in my novel, and where my vision needs more work.

I learnt as much from submitting work as from critiquing others, and discovered a liking for genres I have not yet read much of. I looked forward to reading the new instalments of my peer’s stories each week, and I can’t wait to read those finished stories. I met writers who know the rules of grammar better than me (I’m so used to having that all down, having learnt German and Latin, and taught English as a foreign language). I found heaps of things to admire and aspire to in other writers and made, I hope, sound friendships.

You can read more about Write Draft Critique on Wolf Dietrich’s blog and on the workshop website. As for me, I’m sad that the experience is over, but I hope to take part in Write Draft Critique regularly in the future. And I am excited about a short story I submitted to the workshop that I will be sending to readers as a thank you for signing up to my email list, which you can do here.

So there you have it, the five decisions that have had the most impact on my writing so far. I’d love to hear in the comments about whether there is anything not on this list that has helped you progress with your writing. What are your favourite craft books? Which blogs do you recommend? Have you had any experience with critique groups?

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Coping with the Tide of Life

Photo by Richard Smith

Photo by Richard Smith

Today I feel lost and broken and sad. I’m sitting in the conservatory of the house we rent in Geneva. The doors are open and a light breeze is playing with the hem of my dress. The sky is a blue blanket dotted with wisps of cotton. I want to fly into it and disappear. I’d prefer dark clouds and cleansing rains. Black kites soar above me, casting shadows on our lawn, noisy and ominous as they search for prey. Just ahead, past the swing set, stands a tall lavender bush surrounded by splashes of colourful tulips. The beauty does not lift my mood. All I am conscious of is uncertainty and my own inadequacies.

I’m not sure what brought me to this place. A sense of having lost an anchor, perhaps. A mixed bag of niggling worries. Worrying, according to Buddhism, is a useless emotion, a waste of energy. Usually, I can identify the reason for feeling low. I find a solution or apply a plaster: a hug, tea and biscuits, sleep, write lists to keep from feeling overwhelmed, listen to music, dance in the kitchen with the kids. All of these usually help. But emotions are complex and cannot always be controlled, soothed or even recognised. Sometimes, they are just a murky mist of shapeless ghosts. A fog that eventually lifts.

I am grateful for the silent expression of writing, the soothing rhythm of my fingers as they move over the keyboard, that I don’t have to articulate my thoughts out loud. There is magic in surrendering to a blank page, of savouring the words which appear, a reflection of self. There is wisdom that comes with not rushing to analyse, of not having a conversation partner trying to fix you. Because sometimes a black tide of sadness comes in, and we have neither to make sense of it nor ignore it. What helps is just to be with it, to accept that the sadness will recede and we will find our footing again.

As a child, I was honest about my feelings, clear when I didn’t agree, unwilling to be artful. My parents sent me to a small primary school with a home away from home philosophy. They felt I wore my heart on my sleeve and needed to be protected. As an adult, I understand that there is both strength and fragility in baring ourselves to the world. Life is messy. It is nothing like the polished images we present of ourselves on social media. It twists and turns, and that is part of its beauty, the bright dawn against the night sky.

All we can do is cope in our own way, ask for help when we need it, do the work, make progress inch by inch, and remember what we are grateful for.

Lost and Found Girl

Photo by Stephanie Y.

Photo by Stephanie Y.

Darkness came
to take the lost girl
Those who were left
mourned and beat their breasts
They knew not
her unease had fled

No longer imprisoned
by her broken body
her sleep was peaceful
for the first time
since childhood
Night blurred into day

When she woke
an old lady was waiting,
blue dots trailing
across her skin
just as she had
worn them in life

At the woman’s side
stood her son, strong and tall,
a cigarette between his fingers
He smiled a greeting
for the new soul
and held out his arms

Made of neither flesh nor mists,
they were as real to her
as the sun or the moon
and the stars, or her mother
who knelt at the grave
with flowers and incense

The lost and found girl
had not been ready
to untie herself
from their bonds
She fought fiercely
to keep the circle whole

But Death still came.

The realisation struck
in that moment
of parting
that he was neither
angel nor monster
but complexity itself

He had compassionate
globes for eyes,
hands that warmed her
though she was cold
He spun stories of
gold through the dark

So she went with him,
but first she sought
to tell the weary ones
that her days were
a mere drop
in the ocean of time

The old and infirm
would die
and wombs filled
with new children
so the cycle went
fruitful and fruitless
in equal measure

Though she could hear
their beloved voices
at her ear, speech fled
She could bring them
neither comfort
nor acceptance

Their love became
a stone, pressing down
with a jagged edge
It left a deep cut
they wore with pride
in honour of her

Making Home

IMG_20150125_190714We went back
to bright city lights and siren calls
bleak rain over stacked chimney pots
where the big clock stands
proudly amidst carved buildings
of yellowed stone
sticky pubs and well-trodden streets,
in which street lamps
cast familiar shadows

We travelled back
to the rhythms of my childhood
of parental love
and my grandmother’s food
the constant beep and boom
of the television and telephone,
sprawling networks of goodwill
chiselling away
pieces of our time

Easy to slip into
the patterns of youth
when self-determination seems
an unachievable fantasy
to be buffeted instead
by the storms of others
and forget to thrust our spear
into the ground
on which we wish to stand

I mourned the distance
before we left,
love scarcely tangible
with an ocean between us
Cables and distorted pixels
a poor comparison to touch
What I would give to always
sit at my grandmother’s feet
and welcome back
the ghosts of the past

Still that home is not mine
My home is the one
we created together
brick by brick
kiss by kiss
the circle of your arms
the meat of your feet on mine
underneath the cotton covers
when we sleep

I dream of the third child
we may have,
if the stars align
I think of the home that will be ours
when we move again
And my heart is sore
for the places we have known
I miss the blood and sweat of the city
the clean mountain air and snowy peaks
though we are still here

That little Vietnamese place
with the benches where we used to eat
and our friend sweated out the spice
Our favourite park with its hills,
small like a jewel,
where we walked with him,
the one we loved
and saw the city skyline
if we squinted

The bridge in Eastern Europe
where we picked up the watercolours
and I kicked off my shoes to walk the cobbles
Or our first home together,
above my father’s workshop,
where we’d hear the call of the men
toiling below and my culture
made me feel a hussy
between the sheets without a ring
though we were bonded by love

I think how funny we are
with our need for a place of our own,
a door to close and lock,
when some have only a cardboard box
in a shanty town and a future
that dissolves through their fingers
And it’s not important, place,
or having four walls
to call ours away from the storm

Except it is.

Until our health goes
or our heart.

The Gift

Photo by Shiv Shankar

Photo by Shiv Shankar

I dreamt of you when I was a girl
a hazy promise,
alien and enchanting
The vision bore fruit decades later,
a happy union of God,
luck and human biology

When the time came
you slithered out covered in vernix,
beautiful from the moment I saw you,
a part of myself I did not recognise:
pure, unmarred,
miraculous

Each sunrise brings growth and learning
though often it is you who are the teacher,
gracious when I disappoint myself,
encircling me in childish arms of forgiveness
before toddling off
to wear your sister’s pink boots

A boy whose character came fully formed,
already propelling away from us
into your future, where you will carve out
a small space in the corner of your heart,
that will always be mine
though I want more

My love is for you is a rolling beast,
the last of my own childhood
dispelled with the birth,
a baptism from which
faith was reborn and
a handmaiden and warrior emerged

Sometimes I dream
my hand on your brow heals,
that God has bestowed mothers with
not just nurturing hands but powerful ones
How we turn away from science in our fragility
preferring to cling to beggar’s beliefs

We are guardians not jailers
Though you were born of me
you are not mine to keep
First a thought, then a bean,
now a boy, and one day, I pray,
a man

And I will pray.
I will pray.

For your safety, and your health
That your passions sustain you
and do not burn you
That the war ravaged Earth
remains a haven for you
even if it does not for me

From the moment of your conception
I cannot envisage any other way
but for the soil to be my bed
before it is yours
Happy sadness, that though I rot
there is yet life in your bones

Still, I mourn the distance
that stretches ever further
from the day the cord was cut
under the bleak hospital lighting
when I heard your first wail
and I knew

That forever would not be
long enough to be with you

And we are at the mercy of fate.

Fiction Writer’s Guide: How much Research is too much?

Photo by Brenda Clarke

Photo by Brenda Clarke

I’ve been working recently on a novel that has grown from a short story I wrote last year. It’s a literary romance based in Mumbai about a drifter called Akash. He continued to fill my head after I wrote the last line of the short story and I realised his story was unfinished. It has become a novel about second chances that unravels amongst the dust and grime of the Mumbai’s streets and behind the gates of opulent houses.

Not for the first time during this novel, I have found it easy to be swallowed up in research. Although my heritage is Indian, I was born in the UK. I have visited India twice, once as a child and once in my early twenties. My recollections are broad brush strokes: the smell of street food, the sticky heat, the palaces in Jaipur, the imploring faces of child beggars pressed against cool taxi windows.

For the details for my novel, I turned to travel guides and photo books. Cousins of mine, who live in Mumbai have provided eye witness accounts. I’ve been watching Bollywood movies to get in the mood. The internet has saved me lots of time researching, or so I first thought, compared to the hours spent in dark libraries by previous generations. This, of course, it rubbish. Instead, it opens up as if it is a wormhole, an unfiltered surplus of information, causing hours to disappear with the click of my trackpad.

Photo by Daniel Lobo

Photo by Daniel Lobo

How easy it is to get sidetracked. Yesterday, I needed to know the dates Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, and within moments I was drawn into the tragic glamour of the Gandhi family, history I once knew, but which had all but escaped through the sieve of my memory: Indira’s rise to power, the loss of her politically-minded younger son in a plane crash, convincing her elder son to run for parliament and setting him on the path to his assassination ten years later, her own murder, and how the wives of her dead sons are on opposing sides of the political spectrum in today’s India.

Later, I checked the meaning of a main character’s name: Soraya, taken from the Persian to mean ‘princess’. I found myself reading about Soraya, the Colombian-American singer songwriter, who died in 2006 at 37 years old from breast cancer. And Soraya, Princess of Iran, who married the King, the last Shah of Iran, at eighteen years old, and found she could not conceive. She refused to share her husband with another woman (the King could have had two wives), and they parted after seven years of marriage, both unwillingly, because he needed an heir. The King went on to remarry and have children. Princess Soraya moved to France after their parting and briefly became an actress. She met a new partner but succumbed to depression after he died. She was found dead in her Paris apartment in 2001 at the age of sixty-nine. Her younger brother commented at the time “after her, I don’t have anyone to talk to.” He died a week later.

Photo by Joel Bedford

Photo by Joel Bedford

Princess Soraya’s story reminded me that there are stories all around us, but she is not the Soraya of my novel, and I began thinking about how best to conduct research for fiction without getting distracted or doing too much. With so many avenues at our disposal to gather what we need to write credible stories – books, letters, internet, in person interviews, phone calls, movies, documentaries, museums, online forums, YouTube – how much research is the right amount?

Here are my tips:

Choose projects wisely. While you don’t always need to write what you know, if you are starting from scratch researching an intricate issue, know you’re on the back foot. Readers, agents, publishers are waiting for your next book. Don’t let a world’s worth of research be the reason you are keeping them waiting or your pockets empty

▪ Carry out background research to get you in the frame of mind for your characters, themes and settings is a good idea. Start with a small set of essential questions to keep you focused

Make a note of finer details to weave into your writing. Peppering your fiction with the odd detail will give your writing authenticity

Avoid hoovering up research and dumping it onto the page at all costs. You are writing fiction, not a history textbook

Don’t get sucked into the wormhole. If your words are flowing, mark missing information with an X and return to it later

Search for beta-readers within your subject realm to pick up on inconsistencies and breaks with reality

▪ Save in person jaunts to research your novel for times when your creative juices are running low. A timely visit to a museum or setting can get you out of a rut

▪ Sound the alarm bells when you notice you’re overindulging in research as an excuse to procrastinate

Employ the Iceberg Theory à la Ernest Hemingway, also known as the theory of omission. In other words, do your research, but prune your story so that you tell only what is essential. Trust the reader to understand what is implicit in your story

Develop a BS detector. This advice also comes from Hemingway, so it must be good. Get a feel for your topic, your characters, and assess your words for their measure of truth. Trust your gut

▪ Learning is admirable but there comes a time when you just need to sit your delicious bottom down and write

▪ You’re a fiction writer. Don’t forget it is your magic power to fake what you don’t know

How do you approach researching your fiction? Do you immerse yourself in the background to your story, or are you a fly by the pants type? Let me know in the comments. I love hearing from you. Happy writing, folks.

An Old Man from India

Photo by Lewis

Photo by Lewis

An old man came from India,
scooped up his savings
to visit his new grandchild
The baby, quiet and soft,
suffered from an ailment
that marred its first days

Still the man beamed,
his heart filled with gladness
that the child was there,
a gift, a fighter
he planned to lift up
with his own hands

There was exhaustion
etched on the faces
of the mother and father
Fear cast a shadow
that threatened to
blot out the light

The old man could not protect them
so he walked in his helplessness
as he would at home,
where the streets were dusty
and the vapours drove away
the clouds in his mind

He paced the asphalt streets
in the land of the brave
A poor man praying,
a grandfather seeking
to renew his courage
on that lonely walk

And they came, with enforcements,
with sirens and loudspeakers
But he didn’t understand
their words, their manner,
Or that he had given reason
to cause alarm.

Alarm!

Slaves to concrete, pixelated screens
and hidden tools of death
The man from India
never imagined
he would be condemned
for walking on the street

Or that in the midst
of his very human battle
suspicion would settle
around his shoulders
like a dark mist
he could not pierce

Because of his skin colour
Because, he walked

Tell me

Guardians of the peace
in the land of the brave,
how is it you arm yourselves
to fight the old man,
the troubled boys and the homeless
without first considering
your own flaws?

Use force if you must
but first take a moment
to understand that
poverty, misfortune,
alien ways and DNA do not
automatically make an enemy

He walked.
He will not walk again.
And one tragedy
became three.

Why would You Write a Journal?

“One’s first diarist,” suggests psychotherapist and essayist Adam Phillips, “is one’s mother who links facts for one, holds the pieces together.” Forget the priest’s confession booth or your mum. There are more places than ever for confessionals today. Social media is a constant flood of inner thoughts memorialised. Still, the art of keeping a diary continues, despite a technological and social revolution that mean that both writing by hand and private introspection are fast becoming things of the past. Keeping diaries is an ancient tradition that dates back to 10th century Japan.

I found an old diary of mine recently. I had filled its pages about ten years ago, when I first met my husband. How young I seemed then. What a mix of embarrassment and wonder to rediscover who I was. I’m not a daily journal scribbler. I have a journal on my bedside table and use it when my head feels busy. It helps to spill my thoughts onto the page. I have no rules about what goes into it. I use it to hold myself to account with goals and for story ideas, which are starred and filed away in their proper place later. I remind myself to write a list of things to be grateful for, which I find really helpful to reread on the days I have had a disappointment and have lost my perspective. I have found myself journalling more this year in Switzerland, finding many trusted conversation partners far away.

So what is it that leads us to write diaries? There are some who say diaries are the preserve of the troubled. Once the seas are calm, the diary is relegated to the back of a drawer. A diarist its someone, who is self-important and secretly hopes to be read, who wishes to control, or who does not have the courage to voice their thoughts in conversation. S/he is someone who does not live in the present, who is fascinated by their own history.

Photo by Steve Loya

Photo by Steve Loya

While some truth may be found in the reasons above, it would be a shame to dismiss the benefits of journalling out of hand:

▪ Clarity. You can off-load and clear confusion by articulating your thoughts.

▪ Honesty. No-one has to read your journal but you. Your words are unfiltered, a stream of consciousness. You can strengthen your sense of self, show yourself in your wholeness, rather than the separate facets of ourselves you present to the world. You can say the unsaid.

▪ Presence. Too often, we get caught up in the needs of others and go through the motions of our established routines without self-assessments, but is the tiny adjustments to our evolving needs that leads to greater fulfilment. With a diary you are making time to pay attention to yourself.

▪ Freedom. There are no rules with journalling. It doesn’t have to be daily or grammatically correct. It doesn’t matter how long or short the entry is. Crossing out is just fine. Doodle. Leave a thought mid-sentence if that’s what you want.

▪ Creativity. Experiencing your unfiltered self in all its glory is disconcerting. For a writer especially, it can be wonderful material for a fictionalised character. Oscar Wilde once said, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

Photo by Magic Madzik

Photo by Magic Madzik

▪ Reexamine. Work through difficult episodes. Write down your dreams and explore fantasies. The page is non-judgemental.

▪ Accountability. Track what is important. Map out your goals and progress. Keeping a diary reveals patterns of behaviour and builds self-knowledge.

▪ Recall. We process such a huge amount of information daily. Our lives are crammed full of experiences. It has become the norm to have hundreds of friends we keep track of in different ways. Is it any wonder we are forgetful? Our brains keep only the most important information. There are also physiological reasons why we might only remember the broad strokes of certain events. Take childbirth, for example, where there is good reason to remember the bonding with your newborn over the intensity of the pain of delivery. Use a journal to remember the details.

▪ Destress. The mental health benefits of journalling have been well-documented. It is therapeutic.

▪ Practice. It can be a good warm-up, in the style of Julia Cameron’s morning pages as detailed in The Artist’s Way. W.H. Auden once described his journal as “a discipline for laziness and lack of observation.” For writers journalling is a way to keep our instrument in tune.

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 01.25.01Wonderful published diaries include those of Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, Abraham Lincoln, Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Plath. Other famous diarists such as Evelyn Waugh and Philip Larkin burnt theirs. Whether you write regularly or not, in a leather-bound journal or scrappy exercise book, in ink or on an app, what happens in the pages of your diary is completely up to you. If you do not want yours to be discovered by someone other than you, just remember to keep it somewhere safe.

A New E-book to Help Freelance Writers be Successful

Usually this blog is about creative writing. Sometimes it is about the thoughts that I just can’t get out of my head until I expel them onto the page: an experience that has moved or wounded me, or something that I am angry about. Today though, my post is about the other hat I wear, the one as a freelance writer. My freelance writing company Nillu Writes has its home on another page of this website, and that page is all business. It’s about what I can do for clients.

For exceptional reasons I am allowing my freelancer side to intrude on this blog. And that’s because I am excited that one of my freelance writing articles is to be featured in an e-book released this week by business blogger and author Carol Tice, founder of Make a Living Writing.

Carol Tice e-book full sizeIn the e-book, entitled Start Here: 40 Freelance Writers Share How They Find Clients, Stay Motivated, and Earn Well Today, you’ll find tips on topics including:

▪ getting paying gigs with no writing clips
▪ how rejection makes you a better writer
▪ landing magazine writing gigs for your dream markets
▪ approaching past clients to find new work leads
▪ which stats to track to drive up your earnings
▪ the tell-tale signs to refuse a job
▪ marketing tips to multiply your response rate
▪ unusual places to find story ideas
▪ improving your website

My article, ‘How Introverted Writers Can do Painless Marketing’, nestled within the e-book, talks about:

▪ using social media that suits you
▪ one-on-one, in person queries
▪ making business cards a talking point
▪ letting your website do the talking, and,
▪ choosing to listen

Between you and me, the first draft of the article suggested stand-out business cards such as edible ones for food writers. You’ll have to take a look at the e-book to find out what happened to that idea. Let’s just say, looking back, it’s clear that the whole point of business cards is to keep them not consume them. Still, always good to think outside the box, right?

This site is currently a WordPress.com one and as such, my understanding is I am not allowed to sell books using affiliate links (somehow that always seems a dirty term to me. Must get over that). Neither am I able to sell the book myself using my own shopping cart, both options that Carol has kindly offered to the writing team. As I mentioned in a previous post on safeguarding your contacts/content, I am considering upgrading from a WordPress.com site to a WordPress.org site because it gives you more autonomy in website functions.

For now, if you are interested and the e-book looks like it would be useful for you, it can be bought on pre-sale from Carol’s site from tomorrow and will be officially launched on 26 February.

On my Blip with Twitter and Access to your Contacts

Photo by Liquidnight

Photo by Liquidnight

A few weeks ago I asked my husband if he would take a picture of me. I wanted to update my website. The old avatar was tired, a headshot cropped from a family photo. J was happy to help, and I posed awkwardly. It has always seemed a bit narcissistic to me, individual pictures, apart from if you are memorialising special moments like graduation or a pregnant belly. Later I uploaded the photos onto the website and my social media accounts.

Then something strange happened. I noticed that my new avatar had followed me on Twitter. Strange, I thought. Had there been a glitch? Had I somehow managed to open another account? I checked the timeline of the new follower. I found that not only had my avi had been used by a stranger, but that s/he was offering sexual favours. Compared to what others have had to deal with on Twitter, take for example Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman or feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, this was small fry. It still wasn’t nice.

First step: block that moron
Second step: report account for impersonation
Third step: shake off feelings of disgust

I was asked by Twitter to send them a scan of my passport or driving licence so they could verify the image was me. Then I pushed the incident to the back of my head and forgot about it. That was until yesterday, when I got an update saying that the account had been suspended.

My bad, here. I replied thanking Twitter. Then I checked said account and saw that it was still active. I wrote to Twitter again asking whether there was a delay before the suspension took effect. No response. Then I realised MY account had in fact been suspended. Both my follower and following lists were showing a big fat zero. Cue many tears, an appeal to Twitter and a pleading email begging them to reinstate my account. This, on the day that an internal memo was leaked, in which the Twitter CEO took personal responsibility for the company’s failings on tackling abuse and vowed to make it his top priority.

I reached out to a few Twitter friends on email and told them what had happened. I was after a virtual hug. What I got was more. I was blown away by the support online friends showed, tweeting their censure to @twitter, discussing how this was another example of a #twitterfail in which the community policies fail to protect users. Their support buoyed me.

Photo by Martin Gysler

Photo by Martin Gysler

My love for Twitter friends has snuck up on me. For me, my Facebook personal account is a place for real life family and friends. Twitter began as more of a business transaction, a place to increase my profile as a writer. It took me a while to learn the rules and rhythm of that platform. Now, it feels more authentic. A place for learning, sharing and meeting like-minded people. In comparison it seems to me now that Facebook weakens real life connections. It is an endless stream of Instagramed photos and pithy status updates. Like we are marketing our best selves. And well, for me, marketing belongs in business, not in our personal realm. Besides, with news from organisations filling our streams, and improving mechanisms for community interaction, personal updates on Facebook have begun to drop away.

My tears at the suspension of the Twitter account were an overreaction. It had been a tough week for other reasons. But I was also sad to lose my right to interact in a community I have grown comfortable with. Twitter is the base of many writing contacts, not all of whom I had other contact details for. I was not sure if a reinstated account was wiped clean. I feared losing contact with lovely people whose voices I would miss. Agents and publishers take into account the size of writer platforms when weighing up whether to offer you a deal. I had built up my account organically over a few years, and that work cannot be replicated overnight. Most of all, I felt a keen sense of unfairness that I had acted within the rules set by the community and had been punished. I questioned whether I should have reported the other account holder in the first place.

Less than a day later my account was fully reinstated. There was no apology. I was relieved to reclaim my relationships though my trust for the platform has diminished somewhat. But then, I have some issues with how much information Facebook and Google collect from me, and that doesn’t stop me from using their products. In fact, I love Google. It’s all about value. And the noise of hashtag overuse aside, Twitter brings a lot of value. Still, Twitter has a responsibility to protect its users better. Women, in particular, seem to be victims of trolling on this platform and there is no shirking Twitter’s duty to act more effectively.

If your writing success is even partially dependent on your contacts, you cannot rely on third party applications to protect your contacts. Why would you put all your eggs in one basket when the rules of social media are constantly changing, when you might fall foul of them without even realising it, or through no fault of your own? Nurture the contacts you value. Networking accounts for a lot, and you don’t want to lose access to your network.

As for me, I’ve been to-ing and fro-ing for a while about whether to upgrade to a self-hosted WordPress.org account from my WordPress.com one. I am happy with the current set up, particularly because of the automatic site back-ups WordPress.com carry out and eligibility to be considered for Freshly Pressed, which is a great signal boost. I’d also rather pay my yearly domain fee than a monthly hosting one. But with WordPress.org websites there comes more individuality, the possibility of having an online shop, and most importantly for me, better opportunities to grow your mailing list with plug-ins or email marketing solutions such as A Weber and Mailchimp. This latest experience has confirmed to me how important it is to have your own data.

I’d love to know what solutions you have considered for your websites.

Brilliant Flash Fiction

Photo/painting by freeparking

Photo/painting by freeparking

I’m excited to have made the short list for the January edition of Brilliant Flash Fiction for my story ‘Life is Good’, a tale of a spurned woman.

This one was written whilst waiting in the car to pick up my daughter from school. It was too cold to play outside with my toddler son, so instead, he took the wheel and pretended to drive. I switched to the passenger seat and picked up a pen. The word count was tight and didn’t allow me to include the line:

For someone who was vocal in the bedroom, he died remarkably quietly.

Still, that’s the beauty of flash fiction: it’s a moment of inspiration distilled into a few sentences. There is no room for verbosity. If the novel is akin to a marriage, then flash fiction is a one night stand. Don’t kid yourself though, both have lasting repercussions.

My shortlisted story is below. Read the winning ones and other entries here.

Life Is Good

My husband died last week. It was my doing. I’d planned it meticulously. I began bolstering his ego a few months ago with little scraps of attention until he was sure I’d fallen in love with him again. Then I loosened the railings on our balcony.

Our anniversary is in fall, and we have quite a view from up there of the trees turning gold and bare. It’s the fifth storey, you see. I handed him a flute of champagne and told him to enjoy the view while I went to change into something I had bought especially for him. He couldn’t believe his luck. At least he was happy when he smashed his head in.

I was equally happy when I returned in my gloriously expensive mourning outfit and saw him lying there, splashes of red all around. A girl has to celebrate. I allowed myself a triumphant smile before I slipped my widow’s mask on.

Oh, I excel in this role. It’s the happiest I’ve been…such a natural fit. I think widowhood is quite becoming actually. There’s an elegance to it that is lacking in a mere mother or wife.

Now I stand here with my elegant up-do, a silken shroud of black accentuating my assets. My lips have been painted in nude and there is a hint of mascara on my lashes. Waterproof, of course, in case tears are required. Subtle glamour is the look I am going for. Too much make-up on a widow is unseemly, crass even, and I have a flawless reputation to uphold.

I am awaiting the reading of the will. Money I know is going to me, not his mistress. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. I wonder what I should splash out on first? Life is good.

The Joys of Sisterhood

Photo by Parée

Photo by Parée

I’ve been thinking about the beauty of same sex friendships. For me, there is an emotional security – the German word is ‘Geborgenheit’ and describes this more accurately – about friendships between members of the same sex.

I don’t have any sisters though I always wanted one. The bond between sisters seems a magical one, be it in literature – take Jane Austen novels, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or Angela Carter’s Wise Children – or in real life. My mum is one of six siblings, only one of whom is a boy. My husband, an only child, went to a sports school where the fellow pupils became like brothers for him. I’m glad, looking back, that my parents decided to send my brother and me to single sex schools. Along with the rivalries and hurts that go hand in hand with school years, I formed lasting relationships there.

I was spoilt by intimacy growing up. My family on both sides is boisterous. They talk incessantly, a noisy battle of stories and jocularity, of stormy, steadfast affection. Then there was school and the strong friendships built through my parents’ insistence we attend Friday prayers. I was both anonymous and part of the fold. Looking back those relationships were a gift. The boys and girls used to hang out by the radiators at the back of the mosque after prayers, each on their own side of the room until we became old enough for the members of the opposite sex to become interesting.

As I grew and with the advent of mobile technology, my friendships began to develop independently of my parents. I’d spend hours on the phone talking to female friends using the free talk plans that were so generous in the early days of mobile phone companies. Even today I take huge pleasure from throwing on shoes and a coat and heading over to a friend’s for a cup of tea. No frills, no huge planning, just a few minutes of conversation shared over a mug of Tetley or Twinings.

Photo by Neil Krug

Photo by Neil Krug

It’s different here in Geneva, partly because we’ve only been here six months, and well, friendships develop over time. There is a large population turnover here. Ex-pats invariably arrive to take up jobs with international organisations and their cycles seem to be 3-5 years before moving on. So far I have made few good friends, but in a way this is a blessing for my writing. And there’s always visitors, loved faces that Skype does not do justice to. Even so, when the visitors are gone, I struggle with the need to put on my game face for acquaintances, to reply without frustration when asked daily:

“How are you?”
“Well, thanks. You?”
“Yeah, fine.”
“Good weekend.”
“Can’t complain.”

What a polite dance. I get that time is often short, or you don’t fancy delving into your life troubles with strangers at the school gates. I’m just not very good at repeating this script time and again. It is what irks me when I go to the mosque nowadays. The prayers bring me comfort. But afterwards it is like getting through a rugby scrum. Everywhere there is someone making a beeline for you, catching your eye and asking those same stock questions.

What I really want to say is:

Are you seeing the real me?

I love that when good female friends come together, the default mode of conversation is intimate. I thrive on intimate. It’s one of the reasons I like to read and write fiction. I like being catapulted inside a character’s head. It must have been over a decade ago, but I still remember being enthralled by a performance of The Vagina Monologues. The staging was bare, the lights were dimmed and the performers sat on high stools, a spotlight focused on them, as they told their stories in turn. Their stories, yet we were all on the same page.

There’s a strength to friendship between women. Relationships between women past a certain age are often judged to be secondary to heterosexual ones. Too often they are dismissed as gossipy or opportunistic, or recast to be competitive in nature. To me they have a beauty all of their own. The truth is that female friendships are often profound love stories and they can last a lifetime, accompanying us through puberty and into adulthood, through career choices, various relationships, ill health, the birth of children, the breakdown of marriages, the death of parents and the ageing process.

Of course, there are times when friendships between women falter. Sometimes we grow in different directions. Harder still are the times when previously harmonious relationships suddenly jar for no apparent reason. In my own past, two female friendships suddenly combusted without warning. These ones leave behind sadness, a common his(her)story erased over a perceived slight or out of sync expectations. Worst of all is trashing. I’ve never been able to understand why women disparage each other. Personal attacks borne out of petty jealousies, competition and hatred poison everyone involved. There is room for more than one woman at the top, and there is room for differing viewpoints and personalities.

Happily there is no shortage of women (and men) who are able to celebrate other people, who are there with words of encouragement or a funny story, who are successful and not afraid to pay it forward, to share their time and skills with others. I’ve been blown away by the energy and sharing in writing communities on Twitter (#MondayBlogs, @A_WritersStudio, #wwwblogs, #FridayPhrases, #MyWANA) and on Facebook (Write Better Stories, Writers Soapbox, not all encompassing lists).

Blogging Award

sister-hood-awardIt’s been a while since I did a blogging award. They can be time-consuming, but on the upside they are fun and supportive. A big thanks to Jess West for nominating me for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award. I first met Jess on Twitter. She is fearless and inspiring. We have rubbed elbows at Flash! Friday, Prose Before Ho Hos and recently did a story collaboration together. Jess lives in the States; I wish she lived closer. I sent her Maltesers; she sent me a handwritten letter. Now that’s love.

To accept Jess’s nomination, I have to answer ten questions she has devised, nominate seven female bloggers and ask them my own ten questions. So come on into my living room, I’ll turn the lights down, you can tuck your feet up under you and I’ll whisper random somethings into your ear.

Jess’s Questions

▪ Of the five senses, if you absolutely had to lose one, which would you prefer to be without?

My sense of smell is the weakest of all my senses I think. There are men in my life who let off some pretty rotten smells but thankfully I tend to get the hit quite late, just before it evaporates. Powerful scents tend to give me a headache. Some writers I know would balk at not being able to smell their coffee, but I’ve always been more of a tea drinker anyway. I’d miss the smell of the sea and freshly baked cakes. I’d miss the smell of my mum’s home cooking and knowing when my son needs a nappy change. Still, if I had to choose it would still be scent. I’d struggle more losing one of the others.

▪ Which is your favourite meal, breakfast, lunch, or supper?

Lunch is out, that’s usually rushed for me. I try and maximise writing time while the kids are at school and nursery and often skip it. There’s nothing quite like soggy Cornflakes for breakfast and slurping the remaining milk from the bowl afterwards. But my favourite meal of the day is supper. It’s cooked leisurely with my favourite tracks or BBC Radio 4 on in the background. When it’s time to eat, we take turns telling each other about what has happened that day and playing silly games with the kids. At the moment it’s animal noises. I do a pretty mean eagle.

▪ When is the best time of day to get something accomplished?

First thing in the morning straight after a shower. I find that if I start early, I can keep up my motivation. If I dawdle or get waylaid by chores, then I just don’t end up hitting fifth gear. Last thing at night works well too, when everyone is asleep and the house is quiet. That was my favourite time of day to write when I was still working in regional government.

▪ What’s your stance on tattoos located on the lower back, just above the tailbone?

I thought about getting one when I was seventeen. Back then in Croydon it was all about black cherry lipstick, poker straight hair and lower back tattoos. I thought they were sexy. Now I think that stretch of skin is beautiful bare. I never managed the poker straight hair (thank you Dad) and in the end I went for a tattoo on my left hip. It’s a butterfly – rock and roll! – and when I was pregnant one of its wings stretched out towards my belly. After the children were born it returned to its usual place. I still like it and sometimes think about getting another.

▪ If you could stop time and become a fictional character for the duration of a book, who would you be and from which book?

That’s a toughie. My favourite characters have been put through the mill. I might admire them, but would I want to go through their trials? I’ve always wanted to do magic though, so possibly Molly Weasley from Harry Potter. She has integrity, passion and is made of love. It pours from her. And that is one hell of a moment when she duels with Bellatrix Lestrange in the final book. Although her son dies, doesn’t he? I think it might mean something that I identified with the mum figure and not Hermione Granger. It just occurred to me I’m no longer a spring chicken. But I have depth, baby.

▪ With regard to the previous question, how would your time as that fictional character change how you live your life when you get back?

I’d get more frustrated with housework. Molly uses a fair amount of magic shortcuts in the home. I’d be fiercer in my courage and love, and be more comfortable in my own skin. I would hold my children close.

▪ What’s your favourite TV show and why?

I’m loyal to books but I am flighty with TV. At the moment I’m really enjoying Broadchurch. Great performances and beautiful landscape shots in romantic hues that contrast with the difficult subject matter. But then equally I love the cleverness and directing of Sherlock, the chemistry between the central characters there, and Strikeback, for its dialogue and crowd-pleasing action scenes. Past favourites have been Spooks, Merlin and The Sopranos. There was a time when only Friends could make me laugh out loud at the screen. Any or all of the above hit the spot depending on my mood.

▪ If money were of no concern and you could visit anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

I’d go to Belize for the Maya architecture, caves and beaches. Australia and New Zealand would be a close second, for the landscape, wildlife and because growing up watching Neighbours and Home and Away make me think it’d be a lot of fun. In third place would be Russia for its literary and political history. I can imagine it so well. I’d love to see how my constructions match up to reality.

▪ If you won a million dollars tomorrow, how would you spend it?

I’d pay off the outstanding mortgage on our house and put aside money for the children’s education. I’d buy a flat and split the rental income between my gran and our parents. I’d take a holiday (I lost a bet a long time ago and am supposed to be taking my husband to Budapest) and if there was still enough in the pot I’d buy a Mini Cooper: five doors, in a bright colour, leather seats and wooden finishing inside. The rest I’d save for a rainy day.

▪ What are your plans for 2015?

To keep writing and learning; to try my hand at poetry more often; to learn to play a few songs on the guitar, which is gathering dust in the corner of our living room; to pay 100% attention to the people and things that matter, without a phone in my hand or my thoughts elsewhere. To find a yoga or a zumba class somewhere (I miss my old ones in London and have yet to find somewhere in Geneva). They’re not big plans, just small steps, repeated every day. It’s the repetition that matters I think.

***

We are all trying to steal pockets of writing time for ourselves. If I’ve nominated you for this award and you are unable to accept, just take this as a public declaration of appreciation for your words and your support for other writers. My nominees are:

My questions are:

  • What was the first book you got lost in?
  • Which animal would you like to be and why?
  • What and where is your favourite restaurant?
  • Where is your safe place?
  • Describe a moment from your childhood which makes you smile.
  • Which of your own creations has meant the most to you and why?
  • If you could spend the day with anyone from history, who would you choose and what would you do?
  • Name a song which would get you on the dance floor or which you sing to lift your mood.
  • Which one book would you recommend to your friends and why?
  • Which three places in the world have you really enjoyed being?

Write on, sisters.

On Self-Criticism, Compassion and Progress

Photo by Alice Popkorn

Photo by Alice Popkorn

Hands up if you wrote a list of your priorities at the start of the year and if you have failed to maintain them. A new year holds such promise. Why do we set ourselves up to fail each year and end up feeling miserable? We try to give our lives meaning but what if it has none? Or what if it’s not about the grand gestures, but an accumulation of the small ones?

A few weeks ago friends came to visit us and we stayed up until the early hours. The conversation was happily disjointed. Thoughts were flung around the room and some we examined and others were left discarded with the empty chocolate boxes on the floor. We talked about how it was usual in our generation and circles for girls, as a by product of feminism, to have a dream. In many ways this is a good thing. Still, we questioned whether we were more or less happy than our mothers. Were our mothers more nuanced in their approach to happiness, less single-minded perhaps?

Serenity. For me, it is the most beautiful word in the English language. To me it says contentment and peace; not striving, just being. Have we forgotten how to find contentment in the present? It is important to set goals and live our dreams but let’s not write off the everyday moments that make us happy, the ones that keep us connected to ourselves and to others.

For me it is:

  • The moment of quiet when I first sink in the bath
  • The look that passes between two people when they are on the same page
  • Singing when no one is listening
  • Being present with a story, so much so that I forget myself

This year my resolution is to remember that happiness is the whole picture. It is not the small things we are critical of. It is our intentions. It is our effort. It is growth and resilience, not just a tally of failures and successes. It is all the colours of the rainbow. Happiness is not perfectionism. It is compassion for ourselves and for others. Don’t let self-critical thoughts crush your potential. Let me know the small moments that buoy you in the comments. Whether your start to the year is smooth or bumpy, you’ll get there, as will I.

Pilgrim

Photo by Paul Kline

Photo by Paul Kline

Shrouded silhouette
against the evening light
Nicotine swirls
in the air
Yesterday’s newspapers
litter the stairs

Shackled by integrity
Devoted pilgrim
High-flyer in
the angel stakes, yet
hurt bloomed
like a bruise

Left bereft by
a broken circle of blood
Your thoughts
now confined
to a mound of earth
that bears your name

Exalted grave
made anonymous
by rows of white rock
You lay in a bed of worms
a hundred miles away
from aching loss

Worn cotton sheets
bear your imprint still
A home echoes
with emptiness
The sound of you: a memory
The scent of you: erased

Pressing absence
Poisonous renewal
The vacuum pulls
devouring those
who are alone
Without your love

Regrets and yearning
A love that still burns
fiercely
purely
until we too
are gone

My 2014 Blogging Year in Review

Photo by Chris Chabot

Photo by Chris Chabot

It’s 18 months since I first started blogging. I started this blog as an antidote to a fiction-hating friend. I was unable to convince him of the merits of fiction, and a few weeks later I wrote my first words here. It was my penance for being such a weak defender of something that has been a crutch for me my whole life. It was my homage to words, both fictional and non-fictional, which help me understand the world.

Then something strange happened. This blog began to grow, and slowly, it was not about my friend, it was about me claiming some space for my thoughts, sharing my work and meeting wonderful writers, poets and artists, many of whom have become friends. So for that, Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, Friday Phrases, Monday Blogs and Flash Friday, I thank you.

WordPress sent me a report yesterday of my blog activity this past year. One day I would love to go to Australia. When the kids are a bit older the 24 hour flight will be a breeze: a reading/movie marathon. WordPress tells me that the concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. Apparently this blog was viewed about 9,900 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about four sold-out performances for that many people to see it. That is huge, even if half of those viewings were me and my mum!

The busiest day of the 2014 for this blog was May 5 with 793 views, the day my article ‘The Forgotten Joys of Longhand Writing’ was Freshly Pressed. On average though, I tend to get about 20 views a day and that increases marginally if I post more than once a week. The next most read pieces were my short story ‘The Voyeur’ (which I have now taken down as it seems Akash isn’t finished with me yet and his story has begun to grow into a novel), ‘In Praise of Slowness’, ‘Fear of Change and The Promise of New Beginnings’ and ‘What I Wish I’d Known at the Start of my Writing Journey.’

The WordPress stats report tells me that my top referring sites this year were Freshly Pressed, Twitter, Facebook, Make A Living Writing (where I did a guest post a while back) and the WordPress Reader. So no surprises there. What did surprise me was that readers came from 124 countries. The US was the frontrunner, with the UK and India not far behind. I’m a Londoner of Indian heritage living in Geneva, so that was pretty cool. I currently have just under 1000 blog followers. Jo Blaikie, Graham Milne, Amira K. Makansi and Sarrah J. Woods were my top commenters. Thank you all. If you haven’t checked out their blogs yet, then make a note. You’re in for a treat.

As for me, my favourite posts this year were ‘Losing and Finding Stories’, ‘Loving You’ and ‘The Pact’. ‘Losing and Finding Stories’ was written on a day that the poignancy of life seemed to stare me in the face. Everywhere I looked there were stories that were sad, and beautiful and funny and it struck me that there can never be enough writers. Now that is not something you hear everyday. ‘Loving You’ was a first for me. I don’t often share poetry. It is a form I am not confident about. It takes a particular type of writer to distil the essence of a thought into a line of poetry and the poems I write are usually confined to the pages of my journal. Writers such as B.G. Bowers, Jane Lightbourne, Rachel Thompson, Rachael Charmley and the #FridayPhrases community approach poetry with such ease and skill that they have made me more willing to give it a go. ‘The Pact’ was a project that was unplanned, an idea that bloomed overnight and showed me how generous writers are with their time, how clever, courageous and funny even within strict word and time limits.

The best and the hardest part of blogging is the moment of indecision just before I press publish. I wonder if I’ll come across an idiot, if readers will be irritated and bored, or if my words will resonate. Sometimes silence greets the posts but then later, a friend will mention a line I wrote. That’s a gift. Committing to this blog makes me grow. I’ve also had moments of real synchronicity and peace this year, when I have found clarity and hardly noticed my fingers moving over the keyboard and for that I am grateful.

Next year, I hope to diversify the blog. I’d like to incorporate more of my own photos, post more poems and short excerpts alongside the articles, maybe experiment with audio and video files. This will remain my canvas to empty my thoughts onto. Sometimes I’ll bring yearning, at other times it’ll be questions, fear, love or anger. At the end of 2014, I know that whichever piece of me I bring here, I’m safe. Thank you for that.

Happy New Year my loves.

The Pact: A Short Story Collaboration (Compiled)

You’ll find the combined three parts of our short story collaboration ‘The Pact’ below, based on the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse. Thanks, first and foremost, to all the contributing writers. You’ll find their bios and contact details at the end of the post. Thank you especially to Jess West & Jo Blaikie, who lent a supportive hand on the editing. Jess also pulled together the image you see here. Hope you enjoy it.

JessPic

Nillu Nasser Stelter

He slept in a room full of colour and familiar objects, but the silence crept under the door and touched his face. A blue-black curtain of darkness still hung in the sky. Unease gripped him. He rolled out of bed to look for his mother.

The door handle spun easily in his hand as he padded out into the hallway. The house was dark and didn’t look much like his house at all. Shadows followed him as he stole past closed doors to his mother’s room, expecting to hear the rumble of her snore. Instead, he found her bed empty except for a pair of socks. She didn’t even wear socks.

That she was not there worried him. As a small child he had wept with passion when his mother had left him unattended. Now, even though he was almost grown, she still told him where she was and when to expect her. She had left the older woman in charge then, the one who lived with them and who they said was his grandmother though he had never quite believed it. He had sucked sherbet lollies while she was gone. The instinct was still there. The sugar left his teeth grainy and his mind alert. He was glad. He was never one to trust strangers, and there was something about Granny that sat all wrong.

A man-boy yearning for his mother’s comfort in the dead of the night was not someone who won at life. For a moment he wondered whether to search the remainder of the house for her. But though he was a clever boy, he was not a very brave one. Instead he retreated back to his bedroom and hid underneath the covers until the sun came up. He did not notice the grey cat with amber eyes watching him from behind a pile of discarded clothes.

J. Edward Paul

Will woke to a petrol sunrise, toes curled against the chill of morning. Scrubbing sleep from his face with dry hands, he levered himself off the old mattress and into a pile of dirty laundry. A brief search produced a pair of jeans and a Superman t-shirt that smelled of three-day old cologne.

Silence still held the house hostage, but it seemed less ominous in the light. TV fire burned in the still dark living room, casting technicolour shadows over empty furniture. Uneaten oatmeal sat warm on the sideboard in the kitchen and the orange juice was out.

“Mum?” Will called. “Mum, I’m running late for class. Can I take the car?”

No response came. He knew he should check her room, but his professor did not take kindly to tardiness. Grabbing the keys off a hook in the foyer, Will opened the porch door. It would take him hours to realise it had been left unlocked.

Frosted air nipped at his bare arms. Once in the car, Will rummaged through a pile of greasy bags and discarded Styrofoam cups, coming away with a thin jacket more dirt than fabric. Slipping one arm into a cold sleeve, he used the other to turn the ignition. Manic clicks sent a flock of sparrows scattering toward the town centre. The car was dead.

Will lay his forehead on the steering wheel. “Why today?”

Suddenly, a grey cat landed on the hood with a thud. Will jumped and then nearly scrambled into the torn passenger seat when something moved in his peripheral vision. His grandmother, wide and still, slowly turned toward sunrise.

“You scared the shit out of me, Granny,” Will said as he climbed out of the car.

“They came again,” the old woman whispered.

Natasha Ahmed

“What?” Will frowned, exasperated by his grandmother’s cryptic words. “I don’t have time for this, Granny.” He jerked. “I need to—“

“They came last night.”

He stopped. The flimsy jacket still dangled from his left arm. A gust of wind tossed a swirl of snow across Will’s face and he blinked. Had his grandmother suddenly become translucent? Her words penetrated the morning fog in his mind and he looked back at the house, remembering something about socks…

Will ran past his grandmother into the house, dropping the jacket behind him. The entryway was suddenly grey and cold, and he realised there was an emptiness to the house he hadn’t observed when he first got up. The porch door swung shut with a bang behind him, and he jumped. Cold fingers of fear slid through him. He moved towards the kitchen in the back of the house.

“Mum?” His voice wavered slightly as he called out. Where was she? “Mum, where are you?” He searched the refrigerator for a message, a note, something. She always left a note. Always.

“Mum!” Panic laced the word. He turned away from the refrigerator and almost pissed his pants. Granny was standing at the kitchen island, staring at Will. He hadn’t heard her come in.

“Granny. Who came last night? Where’s Mum?”

“They will come again.”

Will felt like punching her, but she still looked transparent, almost as if she wasn’t there. Would his arm go straight through her if he tried? Fear made his voice squeaky, his words terse. “What’s wrong with you? Tell me where Mum is. I…I have to get to college.”

“We must prepare.” The old woman, now shimmering slightly, moved towards the ottoman in the family room. “Come.”

She lifted the lid.

Margaret Locke

He didn’t want to follow her, fearful of what he might see within the bowels of his once favourite climbing toy.

“Wh-what’s in there? What’s happened to my mum? Who ARE you?”

Granny snarled, exasperation written across her face. “Come, you idiot boy.” She reached down and Will nearly fainted, frightened of what she might show him. Her hands came up again, clutching…papers?

Papers? That was it? No ancient voodoo doll, no cracked human skull, no secret book of spells? He sighed in disappointment as he walked over to her. Mum always told him he had an overactive imagination.

“What are they?” He wished he had a lolly, or maybe some of that oatmeal over on the counter. He’d forgotten to eat breakfast and he was hungry.

“Evidence,” Granny whispered, her eyes darting around the room, as if expecting someone to be lurking in the corners.

“Evidence? Of what?” He took the top sheet in his hand. “It looks like gobbedly-gook to me, just a bunch of numbers.” His eyes widened as he noted the drawing at the bottom. “Is this an -”

“Invisibility cloak? Yeah,” Granny broke in, impatience lacing her words. “Obviously in beta, which is why you can still see me.”

“But what—How—?”

Granny scooped up the rest of the papers and came toward him. “You think all the woman did was cut the crusts off your bread? This—this­—is her true life’s work. Not you, you ungrateful idiot.”

The cat slinked into the room, its amber eyes fixed on both of them.

“Take these and go quickly,” said Granny, thrusting the papers into his arms. He stared, bewildered, as she bent down to the cat and began to whisper in an indecipherable tongue.

Jimmi Campkin

“It’s ok, he’s not in today.”

A sense of relief and shame washed over Will as the lecture hall slowly filled, like a gentle incoming tide. Even Todd, his closest friend, now felt the need to tiptoe around him. To handle him like a fragile ornament.

“Randy MacGuffin.” Todd spat out the syllables and left them, rotting, on the sticky carpet. “Don’t pay any attention to him.”

Everyone did though. Blessed with the supreme confidence of someone who habitually relieved the local store of soda cans and chocolate bars, Randy was the figurehead of the year, a larger than life character through whom all events were channeled. He was an opinion piece and a newsreader in one cocky swagger, and now his top scoop featured ‘Weird Willy’ and his papers. And his grandmother, and the cat.

“Just so you know, I don’t laugh at the incest jokes about you and your mum.”

Todd had a knack of comforting you in a barbed wire blanket.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether he is here or not,” lied Will, as students turned away from the huge screen towards him. He tried to maintain eye contact with some but their smiles grew, eyes twinkling with malevolence.

The room fell silent as an officer walked in, furtively whispering to the lecturer. The two sets of eyes locked on Will. The rest of the room followed the gaze. A ripple of astonishment hovered over the collective heads, incredulous that the rumours might be true.

Minutes later Will learned about Randy’s corpse and that his engraved pen knife had been found jammed deep into the dead boy’s neck.

Linda Huber

The police car wound through town, Will trembling in the back and Todd tense beside him. To Will’s surprise they didn’t turn up the High Street towards the police station.

“Hey, where are you going?” The policeman in the passenger seat was astounded. The driver made no answer, but Will knew. They were going home.

Granny was waiting at the door, the papers he had dropped that morning in one hand. She approached the car and pulled Will from the back seat. He flinched at her touch. Her hands were cold, cold as her voice when she spoke to the officers.

“You have seen nothing. You will remember nothing.”

Todd scrambled out and stood beside Will as the police car moved away and disappeared round the corner.

Will could hear the panic in his own voice. “So where’s Randy?”

Granny turned into the hallway and the boys followed her through into the front room. There on the floor was the blood-soaked corpse of Will’s tormentor, flies already gathering in the wound under his jawbone.

“Not a very nice boy, dear,” said Granny. “He knew rather too much, I’m afraid.”

You killed him?”

The cat slid into the room and stood behind Will’s grandmother, its tail swinging from side to side and its eyes fixed on Will. And all at once there was a perfume in the air, a faint but unmistakable whiff: his mother’s perfume.

“Of course not. That was the others. Poor fool you are. You’ll understand tomorrow.”

She wheeled round, but the cat had vanished. Will looked at Todd. Tomorrow was his eighteenth birthday, but why would he understand then?

“I think you should go, Todd. You might not be safe here.”

“Of course he can’t go!” snapped Granny. “Why do you think I made the boys in blue bring him back here? He’s the witness.”

Jessica West

“What if I said no?” Will fidgeted under Granny’s glare.

Todd inched over closer to him, nudging Will’s arm with an elbow.

Her eyes narrowed. “I know what you’re thinking. If you run,” she gestured to Randy’s corpse on the living room floor, “your friend will end up like this young man.”

Will felt the shudder that ran through Todd, but to his friend’s credit, he held his ground.

“Who’s to say I won’t end up like that anyway?” Todd straightened to his full height. Though he was tall, he was also lanky. He didn’t exactly strike an intimidating figure. “Some weird shit’s going down, and you need to give us some answers.”

“Yeah,” Will said.

Grey, bushy brows rose high above Granny’s hazel eyes.

Still bolstered from Todd’s speech, Will spoke the words her glare had previously silenced. “And it seems like you need us more than we need you.”

Granny smiled and shook her head. She tilted it to one side as she appraised him. “I never thought you’d have the guts.”

Her smile struck Will as malevolent and proud at once, as though she were examining prey that had turned into a worthy opponent. Her features shifted to a blank expression as she lifted her hands. When Granny turned her palms up, lightening arced outward, shattering every bulb in the room. With one palm facing the window, she curled her fingers into claws.

The glass cracked and shattered.

With her other hand, she drained all colour from the room.

Peach walls and beige carpets bled out, leaving them black. The colours melted and burned midair, turning into a thick, dark syrup.

Granny guided the liquid into the shards of glass, the pane now a crackled black barrier against the light and life outside.

Drew Chial

Todd tried to pry the door open, kicking the wall for leverage. He tested the locks, but the door refused to carry out its function. Todd examined the crack. Molten glass had bled over the threshold.

“We’re fused in,” Todd tried to phone emergency services, “and it looks like that black stuff is killing my cell reception.”

Will couldn’t look away from his classmate’s corpse, “I’m more concerned about what happens when this smell starts circulating.”

Todd turned to Granny, knitting on the couch, confident her display of power had gotten the message across. The cat rubbed figure eights around Todd’s ankles, putting him in his place.

“What am I here to witness?”

Granny winked at the feline avatar, “The completion of a transaction. On the eighteenth birthday of the first son, the shadow lenders will collect payment.”

Todd shook his head, “Right, they’re malicious, but they won’t mess with minors, huh?”

Will threw a blanket over Randy’s body. “What do you mean, payment?”

Granny stretched her design to reveal a spiral symbol from some ancient alchemy stitched into the yarn. “Your mother sought benefactors for her invisibility cloak. They required a return on their investment. When the clock strikes midnight, they will come.”

Will scoffed. “She’s full of shit. I was born in the late afternoon. I was a fat fetus, took all day to deliver. Mum never tires of telling the story because she loves me. She would never offer me as payment to anyone.”

Granny nodded. “That was part of the deal. They wanted her to mother you, keep you nice and sweet. They have refined tastes.”

Will balled his hands to fists.

“Ha!” Todd tapped his phone. “The WiFi’s still up. Looks like she doesn’t have dominion over all the utilities, yet.”

Amira K. Makansi

While Todd frantically typed in a message to the local police via Facebook, Will stared between Granny and the grey cat, unsure whether the two were allies, enemies, or something in between. The courage he’d sought all his life seemed to hover before him, ready to snatch out of the air if he so chose. But between his mum missing, the strange cat, his Granny’s witchcraft, and the body buzzing with flies in front of him, Will wasn’t sure he wanted that courage.

“So where is my mum, then?” He asked innocently. He glanced at the cat for effect, inquiring if she was the cat, but Granny just smiled, peeling back her lips to reveal a perfect set of pearly whites.

“You guys are so loony,” Todd muttered.

In a blur of teeth, claws, and fur, the cat leapt past Will and latched itself onto Todd’s chest, clawing and biting with the fervour of a demon.

“I’d watch what you say, young man” Granny shouted above the clamour of the cat’s yowls and Todd’s shrieks of pain. “Tempers are frayed enough already!”

Will jumped to his friend’s defence, trying to pry the cat from Todd’s chest and neck, but was only rewarded with a sharp bite. For a moment it continued like that – Todd howling, Will scrabbling at the frenetic cat, and Granny watching the encounter with narrowed eyes.

Then, quite abruptly, she barked out several words in an alien language, whose sounds could only be described as ghoulish. The cat calmed, releasing Todd and dropping to the floor, cleaning its face as if nothing had ever happened. While Todd whimpered and surveyed his wounds, Will stared at his Granny.

“You’re not even on my side in this,” he said. “For God’s sake, Gran, what are you?”

Joanne Blaikie

“Well, I’ll tell you what I’m not. I’m not your grandmother, but you always suspected as much didn’t you?”

Will stood unflinching at the news.

“Go on. I’m listening. I mean, it’s not like I have a choice, now you have us captive here.” He gestured to the sealed door.

“That was a necessity,” the old woman snapped. “I told you when you found those papers that we must prepare, but would you listen?” She rose from the couch and glided over to Will. “It’s not easy to explain, but I am on your side. We hoped never to have to explain all this to you, but your mother’s work on that invisibility cloak remains incomplete and now they will make her pay.”

Will saw a look of sorrow cross her wizened features.

“Goodness knows I’ve done everything to protect her from this day!” She suddenly threw up her hands and, turning from Will, took a deep breath. “My name is Scareesha.” Her voice softened. “I am a Protector. There are many of my kind and our Order work against The Shadow Lenders. I was sent to protect your mother after she became embroiled with them.”

From behind the couch amber eyes flickered.

He was one of us.” She motioned to the body on the floor. “An immature, foolish Protector who got himself killed by them for meddling in matters beyond his comprehension, but a Protector nevertheless.”

“I wish you could lay an invisibility cloak on him.” Will balked at the stench emitting from the lifeless mass.

Scareesha considered the corpse for a moment, nodded, then stepped back. She raised a hand as before and a lightning bolt shot across the room. In a split second the body and blanket disintegrated into dust leaving no trace of Randy MacGuffin.

Rachael Spellman

“I gotta say,” Will said, “I’m kinda relieved you’re not my granny.”

Scareesha’s mouth twisted.

“You wouldn’t want my blood. You’ve enough problems with your own.” Opening her hands, she sent the knitted symbol into the air, where it hung cobweb-thin in the pooling blue light. Todd had curled into himself, silent and still; his phone lay upturned on the carpet, full of a half-finished message. He moved wet-dark fingers over his neck. Glaring at the couch, Will knelt, shuffling towards his friend on hands and knees. The cat blinked, a slow burn of amber, and stayed where it was.

Scareesha snorted. “You’ve more important things to worry about than a bleeding fool.”

“So you keep telling me. And everything else, while locking me in to wait for people who’re coming after me.” His back stiffened as the cat made a noise, but Scareesha only raised a hand. The phone flickered and died as the webbed symbol turned, slow-and-slow, growing in the air. Will held his breath. Numbers and letters threaded themselves through the yarn, collecting like rain in the faded skin and eyes of the old woman.

She watched his face. “You’ve no one else to trust. Be sensible.”

Thick warmth touched his hand. Will flinched, glancing down. Todd’s eyes were wide and dark; he smelled of iron.

“Just keep that thing away from me. I don’t care about the rest.” His friend licked his lips. “Whatever she’s on about, I won’t look. I won’t watch.”

A low laugh. Scareesha’s hand trembled as it traced shapes on the air, mapping the room in digit loops that found the clock and the mirror. Will felt the old woman’s fear as snow underfoot, burning and cold.

Soundless, the cat peeled away from the wall. It stalked the revolving symbol,

Peter Samet

which slurped down the alphanumeric strings like spaghetti. She shimmied her rear into a pouncing position.

The numbers zipped past Will’s face in barely legible streaks, but he was able to pick out a pattern. 3278…1893…990…423… A countdown sequence. Something important was about to happen very soon.

127…65…22…0

The strings reached their flailing ends. The symbol swallowed each one in quick succession, burping out the zeros.

Scareesha’s shoulders relaxed in the ensuing darkness. “The cosmic addresses have been resolved.” She gestured to the room’s remaining source of light, the symbol, which had morphed into a floating zero no bigger than a thumbprint. “Now for the tricky part. I want you to stick your finger into this hole.”

Will gave his hands a stupefied stare, as if suddenly forced to bid farewell to a dear friend.

“Don’t be a baby. I just need your boyish brawn.”

Will took an uneasy breath and approached the arcane zero at the slowest pace he could muster without moving in reverse. He hoped the easily frustrated old woman would rescind her order, but her glare did not budge.

The zero pulsed slightly as Will extended his chubby digit towards it. The edge of the ring emitted a brilliant blue light, but the center was a black void. A portal, he realized with a flash of panic. That meant anything could be lurking on the other side. A meat grinder. An alien with a pair of scissors. Or the vacuum of space—a much more likely and equally calamitous fate. Will’s finger trembled at the grim possibilities.

“Oh, do hurry up!” Scareesha moaned. “If you were in bed with a woman, she would have slapped your finger away and done the deed herself.”

Will’s eyes narrowed at the slight, and he plunged his finger through the opening.

Paula Reed Nancarrow

And then it was his body on the other side, and his finger wiggled through the opening backwards, as if chiding the naughtiness of the world outside the naught. The fused glass formed a wall in front of him, one that cleared and grew luminous. Elsewhere there were only shadows, twitching like flames, or the tail of the cat.

Gradually in the glass wall he saw things. He saw himself sleeping in a room full of colour and familiar objects; saw the sun rise in petrol hues. There was the old woman, translucent, telling him his mum had a “life’s work,” shaming him about bread crusts. There was Todd, not laughing at incest jokes, and bloody Randy, no longer making them.

He saw Granny – no, Scareesha – shoot lightening from her palms, heard the light bulbs shatter, and Todd invoke the god of WiFi; saw the cat attack Todd, and Scareesha calm the cat, assert herself as a Protector, throw her knitted alchemical cobweb into the air. He saw the cat stalking the revolving symbol, which danced on the wall like the point of a laser, till it rested on the hole his finger plugged.

“The cosmic addresses have been resolved,” he heard again. “Now for the tricky part.”

The scenes had a certain disconnected quality to them, like a jumpy, much-spliced reel of film. This is not the sort of story I would write about myself, he thought. Not the sort of play I would want to be in either. In his literature class they had been reading Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. What would it take, he thought for a moment, to author oneself?

“I’m glad you asked that question,” said a familiar voice behind him. And there she was. His mum.

Graham Milne

Her feline form stretched and grew, limbs twisting and elongating, bones cracking, until the mother he recognised stood before him. She looked older, based strictly on the lines framing her face and the silver dappling her hair, but touched with a serenity that made her seem much younger, as if to her, the world was full of promise and opportunity waiting to be plucked like newly ripened apples.

Will stumbled. “Mum, what’s going on? I don’t–”

“Understand?” she finished for him. She shared a smile with Scareesha. “They never do, do they?” Will felt his own mouth warp into a dumbstruck simper as he watched his mother cross the room – a mirror image of their own – and seat herself next to the peculiar old witch.

“So few people ever reach this point, Will,” she said, in a voice part-lullaby, part-warm milk. So soothing. “Everyone is born with the potential, but most choose to ignore it. They are content to let fate author their lives for them, instead of grasping the chance to take charge of their own destiny. It’s about far more than just deciding to pursue a career, or a partner. It’s about seizing the very fabric of life itself and knitting it into the pattern that you choose.” Scareesha nodded agreement.

Will sank to the ottoman. His mother reached out and took hold of his hand. “I remember how scared I was when it was my turn, my son. I didn’t want to believe it either. But I need you to trust me now. Can you make this leap? Will you come with us?”

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” erupted a voice from behind. Will wheeled to see Todd, his form skewing and splintering into shards of pure darkness. It took no great leap, given what he’d learned, to surmise what his friend really was.

A Shadow Lender.

Roger Jackson

“Well,” his mother purred. “It’s about time.”

“We promised midnight,” Darkness seeped between Todd’s teeth. “But we didn’t say which one. Ever used Twitter? It’s always midnight somewhere. Time to pay up, sweetie.”

Will stood. “You’ll have to go through me first.”

Todd’s smile broadened. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

He raised his hands, thorny vines of blackness unrolling from his fingertips to encircle Will’s throat. Will tried to scream, but the spiked tendrils had already begun to squeeze.

Through a haze of pain, he saw his mum and Scareesha moving to flank Todd, and felt an icy current of fear run through him. Fear… and understanding.

The Shadow Lender had sprung his trap. But as the first sparks of lightning danced around Scareesha’s fingertips, Will understood whose trap this really was. In his mother’s hand Will saw a page of symbols, like the ones from the ottoman.

Todd had seen the page, too. His black eyes widened. Will felt the vines begin to withdraw. Scareesha shrieked, those strange indecipherable words, and a hundred blazing arcs leapt from her fingers. Todd screamed too, but whereas Scareesha’s cry had been triumphant, his was undiluted terror.

The lightning unravelled Todd, somehow. His body scattered like ashes, but something from the core of him was thrown across the room. It splattered across the paper that Will’s mother held, like some strange inkblot. The last of Todd’s body swirled into embers and was gone.

Will blinked, and found himself in the living room again. The real living room. Scareesha watched approvingly as his mother folded the sheet with the inky essence imprinted upon it.

“The cloak’s final ingredient,” she said. “The one they want to keep secret. A Shadow Lender’s soul.”

Will’s mother smiled at him. Her eyes were amber, slitted like a cat’s, but the smile was all her own.

The Writers

Nillu Nasser Stelter

Nillu Nasser Stelter is happiest barefoot with a book in hand, or when writing in her attic. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel. nillunasserstelter.com.

J. Edward Paul is a writer, artist, and mailman. When not slinging letters, he is pounding his head into a keyboard hoping for a bestseller. jedwardpaul.wordpress.com

J. Edward Paul is a writer, artist, and mailman. When not slinging letters, he is pounding his head into a keyboard hoping for a bestseller. jedwardpaul.wordpress.com

Natasha Ahmed is a pen name. In real life, Natasha is a graphic designer who occasionally writes art and book reviews for publications within Pakistan. She is the author of the romance novella Butterfly Season. dearrumi.com

Natasha Ahmed is a pen name. In real life, Natasha is a graphic designer who occasionally writes art and book reviews for publications within Pakistan. She is the author of the romance novella Butterfly Season. dearrumi.com

Margaret Locke is a writer of witty, quirky romance who also dabbles in flash fiction. Find her at margaretlocke.com.

Margaret Locke is a writer of witty, quirky romance who also dabbles in flash fiction. Find her at margaretlocke.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jimmi Campkin is a writer and photographer in the North East of England. When he does something noteworthy, you’ll be first to hear about it. jimmicampkin.wordpress.com

Jimmi Campkin is a writer and photographer in the North East of England. When he does something noteworthy, you’ll be first to hear about it. jimmicampkin.wordpress.com

Author of The Paradise Trees and The Cold Cold Sea, Linda Huber lives in Switzerland and teaches English in a medieval castle. lindahuber.net

Author of The Paradise Trees and The Cold Cold Sea, Linda Huber lives in Switzerland and teaches English in a medieval castle. lindahuber.net

Jessica West is a freelance writer and editor and an independent author. She's the Pro Domme at Prose Before Ho Hos (see also Madame Editor), and maintains both a personal and bookish blog. Her newest release, Red River Rangers; A Whiskey & Wheelguns Novelette, is available at Amazon. west1jess.com

Jessica West is a freelance writer and editor and an independent author. She’s the Pro Domme at Prose Before Ho Hos and maintains both a personal and bookish blog. Her newest release, Red River Rangers; A Whiskey & Wheelguns Novelette, is available at Amazon. west1jess.com

Drew Chial is an author, screenwriter, graphic artist, aspiring voice actor, and a musician living in Minnesota. He writes short stories that he bills as Twilight Zone fan fiction. His self-published horror novella Terms and Conditions is available for free on his website. drewchial.com

Drew Chial is an author, screenwriter, graphic artist, aspiring voice actor, and a musician living in Minnesota. He writes short stories that he bills as Twilight Zone fan fiction. His self-published horror novella Terms and Conditions is available for free on his website. drewchial.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amira K. Makansi makes wine by day and worlds by night. When not writing, you will find her listening to music with a drink in hand. theseedstrilogy.com

Amira K. Makansi makes wine by day and worlds by night. When not writing, you will find her listening to music with a drink in hand. theseedstrilogy.com

Joanne Blaikie is a part-time teacher from the UK. She is currently writing her first novel; a children’s epic fantasy story in three volumes. fredamoya.wordpress.com

Joanne Blaikie is a part-time teacher from the UK. She is currently writing her first novel; a children’s epic fantasy story in three volumes. fredamoya.wordpress.com

Rachael Spellman is a freelance writer and researcher. She writes about mental health, Synaesthesia, social networking, and anything else which takes her fancy. Her short story Terminal is available on Amazon. raishimi33.wordpress.com

Rachael Spellman is a freelance writer and researcher. She writes about mental health, Synaesthesia, social networking, and anything else which takes her fancy. Her short story Terminal is available on Amazon. raishimi33.wordpress.com

Peter Samet uses science fiction to explore impossible existential questions. A film editor by trade, he earned his storytelling chops at USC Film School and Pixar. zeroechoshadowprime.com

Peter Samet uses science fiction to explore impossible existential questions. A film editor by trade, he earned his storytelling chops at USC Film School and Pixar. zeroechoshadowprime.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paula Reed Nancarrow is a writer and performer of personal and historical narratives, as well as folk tales and myths, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. paulareednancarrow.com

Paula Reed Nancarrow is a writer and performer of personal and historical narratives, as well as folk tales and myths, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. paulareednancarrow.com

Graham Milne writes about entertainment, politics, parenting and the meaning of life (with the occasional lapse into fiction), because he can’t act or spot weld. grahamscrackers.com

Graham Milne writes about entertainment, politics, parenting and the meaning of life (with the occasional lapse into fiction), because he can’t act or spot weld. grahamscrackers.com

Roger Jackson has little to declare but his geekiness. His novella CRADLE OF THE DEAD was published by Bloodbound Books in November 2014.  jabe842.wordpress.com

Roger Jackson has little to declare but his geekiness. His novella Cradle of the Dead was published by Bloodbound Books in November 2014. jabe842.wordpress.com

The Pact (Part 3): A Short Story Collaboration

A few months ago I came across a short story collaboration in The New Yorker based on the Surrealist parlour game Exquisite Corpse. This inspired the short story ‘The Pact’, written in collaboration with other writers. Essentially, the deal was fifteen writers, three hundred words each, no discussions and minimal editing. Follow the links to read part one and part two. Here, at last, it the third and final part of the story. A big thanks to the writers involved and I hope you enjoy it. Stop by the comments to let us know what you think and merry Christmas everyone.

Rachael Spellman

“I gotta say,” Will said, “I’m kinda relieved you’re not my granny.”

Scareesha’s mouth twisted.

“You wouldn’t want my blood. You’ve enough problems with your own.” Opening her hands, she sent the knitted symbol into the air, where it hung cobweb-thin in the pooling blue light. Todd had curled into himself, silent and still; his phone lay upturned on the carpet, full of a half-finished message. He moved wet-dark fingers over his neck. Glaring at the couch, Will knelt, shuffling towards his friend on hands and knees. The cat blinked, a slow burn of amber, and stayed where it was.

Scareesha snorted. “You’ve more important things to worry about than a bleeding fool.”

“So you keep telling me. And everything else, while locking me in to wait for people who’re coming after me.” His back stiffened as the cat made a noise, but Scareesha only raised a hand. The phone flickered and died as the webbed symbol turned, slow-and-slow, growing in the air. Will held his breath. Numbers and letters threaded themselves through the yarn, collecting like rain in the faded skin and eyes of the old woman.

She watched his face. “You’ve no one else to trust. Be sensible.”

Thick warmth touched his hand. Will flinched, glancing down. Todd’s eyes were wide and dark; he smelled of iron.

“Just keep that thing away from me. I don’t care about the rest.” His friend licked his lips. “Whatever she’s on about, I won’t look. I won’t watch.”

A low laugh. Scareesha’s hand trembled as it traced shapes on the air, mapping the room in digit loops that found the clock and the mirror. Will felt the old woman’s fear as snow underfoot, burning and cold.

Soundless, the cat peeled away from the wall. It stalked the revolving symbol,

Peter Samet

which slurped down the alphanumeric strings like spaghetti. She shimmied her rear into a pouncing position.

The numbers zipped past Will’s face in barely legible streaks, but he was able to pick out a pattern. 3278…1893…990…423… A countdown sequence. Something important was about to happen very soon.

127…65…22…0

The strings reached their flailing ends. The symbol swallowed each one in quick succession, burping out the zeros.

Scareesha’s shoulders relaxed in the ensuing darkness. “The cosmic addresses have been resolved.” She gestured to the room’s remaining source of light, the symbol, which had morphed into a floating zero no bigger than a thumbprint. “Now for the tricky part. I want you to stick your finger into this hole.”

Will gave his hands a stupefied stare, as if suddenly forced to bid farewell to a dear friend.

“Don’t be a baby. I just need your boyish brawn.”

Will took an uneasy breath and approached the arcane zero at the slowest pace he could muster without moving in reverse. He hoped the easily frustrated old woman would rescind her order, but her glare did not budge.

The zero pulsed slightly as Will extended his chubby digit towards it. The edge of the ring emitted a brilliant blue light, but the center was a black void. A portal, he realized with a flash of panic. That meant anything could be lurking on the other side. A meat grinder. An alien with a pair of scissors. Or the vacuum of space—a much more likely and equally calamitous fate. Will’s finger trembled at the grim possibilities.

“Oh, do hurry up!” Scareesha moaned. “If you were in bed with a woman, she would have slapped your finger away and done the deed herself.”

Will’s eyes narrowed at the slight, and he plunged his finger through the opening.

Paula Reed Nancarrow

And then it was his body on the other side, and his finger wiggled through the opening backwards, as if chiding the naughtiness of the world outside the naught. The fused glass formed a wall in front of him, one that cleared and grew luminous. Elsewhere there were only shadows, twitching like flames, or the tail of the cat.

Gradually in the glass wall he saw things. He saw himself sleeping in a room full of colour and familiar objects; saw the sun rise in petrol hues. There was the old woman, translucent, telling him his mum had a “life’s work,” shaming him about bread crusts. There was Todd, not laughing at incest jokes, and bloody Randy, no longer making them.

He saw Granny – no, Scareesha – shoot lightening from her palms, heard the light bulbs shatter, and Todd invoke the god of WiFi; saw the cat attack Todd, and Scareesha calm the cat, assert herself as a Protector, throw her knitted alchemical cobweb into the air. He saw the cat stalking the revolving symbol, which danced on the wall like the point of a laser, till it rested on the hole his finger plugged.

“The cosmic addresses have been resolved,” he heard again. “Now for the tricky part.”

The scenes had a certain disconnected quality to them, like a jumpy, much-spliced reel of film. This is not the sort of story I would write about myself, he thought. Not the sort of play I would want to be in either. In his literature class they had been reading Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. What would it take, he thought for a moment, to author oneself?

“I’m glad you asked that question,” said a familiar voice behind him. And there she was. His mum.

Graham Milne

Her feline form stretched and grew, limbs twisting and elongating, bones cracking, until the mother he recognised stood before him. She looked older, based strictly on the lines framing her face and the silver dappling her hair, but touched with a serenity that made her seem much younger, as if to her, the world was full of promise and opportunity waiting to be plucked like newly ripened apples.

Will stumbled. “Mum, what’s going on? I don’t–”

“Understand?” she finished for him. She shared a smile with Scareesha. “They never do, do they?” Will felt his own mouth warp into a dumbstruck simper as he watched his mother cross the room – a mirror image of their own – and seat herself next to the peculiar old witch.

“So few people ever reach this point, Will,” she said, in a voice part-lullaby, part-warm milk. So soothing. “Everyone is born with the potential, but most choose to ignore it. They are content to let fate author their lives for them, instead of grasping the chance to take charge of their own destiny. It’s about far more than just deciding to pursue a career, or a partner. It’s about seizing the very fabric of life itself and knitting it into the pattern that you choose.” Scareesha nodded agreement.

Will sank to the ottoman. His mother reached out and took hold of his hand. “I remember how scared I was when it was my turn, my son. I didn’t want to believe it either. But I need you to trust me now. Can you make this leap? Will you come with us?”

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” erupted a voice from behind. Will wheeled to see Todd, his form skewing and splintering into shards of pure darkness. It took no great leap, given what he’d learned, to surmise what his friend really was.

A Shadow Lender.

Roger Jackson

“Well,” his mother purred. “It’s about time.”

“We promised midnight,” Darkness seeped between Todd’s teeth. “But we didn’t say which one. Ever used Twitter? It’s always midnight somewhere. Time to pay up, sweetie.”

Will stood. “You’ll have to go through me first.”

Todd’s smile broadened. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

He raised his hands, thorny vines of blackness unrolling from his fingertips to encircle Will’s throat. Will tried to scream, but the spiked tendrils had already begun to squeeze.

Through a haze of pain, he saw his mum and Scareesha moving to flank Todd, and felt an icy current of fear run through him. Fear… and understanding.

The Shadow Lender had sprung his trap. But as the first sparks of lightning danced around Scareesha’s fingertips, Will understood whose trap this really was. In his mother’s hand Will saw a page of symbols, like the ones from the ottoman.

Todd had seen the page, too. His black eyes widened. Will felt the vines begin to withdraw. Scareesha shrieked, those strange indecipherable words, and a hundred blazing arcs leapt from her fingers. Todd screamed too, but whereas Scareesha’s cry had been triumphant, his was undiluted terror.

The lightning unravelled Todd, somehow. His body scattered like ashes, but something from the core of him was thrown across the room. It splattered across the paper that Will’s mother held, like some strange inkblot. The last of Todd’s body swirled into embers and was gone.

Will blinked, and found himself in the living room again. The real living room. Scareesha watched approvingly as his mother folded the sheet with the inky essence imprinted upon it.

“The cloak’s final ingredient,” she said. “The one they want to keep secret. A Shadow Lender’s soul.”

Will’s mother smiled at him. Her eyes were amber, slitted like a cat’s, but the smile was all her own.

The Writers

Rach

Rachael Spellman is a freelance writer and researcher. She writes about mental health, Synaesthesia, social networking, and anything else which takes her fancy. Her short story ‘Terminal’ is available on Amazon. raishimi33.wordpress.com

PeterSamet

Peter Samet uses science fiction to explore impossible existential questions. A film editor by trade, he earned his storytelling chops at USC Film School and Pixar. zeroechoshadowprime.com

paula

Paula Reed Nancarrow is a writer and performer of personal and historical narratives, as well as folk tales and myths, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. paulareednancarrow.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Graham

Graham Milne writes about entertainment, politics, parenting and the meaning of life (with the occasional lapse into fiction), because he can’t act or spot weld. grahamscrackers.com

Roger

Roger Jackson has little to declare but his geekiness. His novella Cradle of the Dead was published by Bloodbound Books in November 2014. jabe842.wordpress.com

 

The Pact (Part 2): A Short Story Collaboration

Here it is, part two of our short story collaboration, based on the Surrealist parlour game Exquisite Corpse. If you haven’t had a chance to read part one yet, you’ll find it here. Thanks once again to Madame Editors Jess West & Jo Blaikie, who are also part of this week’s writing team. You can find bios and links to individual author websites at the end of the piece. Happy reading and hope you’ll be back for the third and final part next week.

Linda Huber

The police car wound through town, Will trembling in the back and Todd tense beside him. To Will’s surprise they didn’t turn up the High Street towards the police station.

“Hey, where are you going?” The policeman in the passenger seat was astounded. The driver made no answer, but Will knew. They were going home.

Granny was waiting at the door, the papers he had dropped that morning in one hand. She approached the car and pulled Will from the back seat. He flinched at her touch. Her hands were cold, cold as her voice when she spoke to the officers.

“You have seen nothing. You will remember nothing.”

Todd scrambled out and stood beside Will as the police car moved away and disappeared round the corner.

Will could hear the panic in his own voice. “So where’s Randy?”

Granny turned into the hallway and the boys followed her through into the front room. There on the floor was the blood-soaked corpse of Will’s tormentor, flies already gathering in the wound under his jawbone.

“Not a very nice boy, dear,” said Granny. “He knew rather too much, I’m afraid.”

You killed him?”

The cat slid into the room and stood behind Will’s grandmother, its tail swinging from side to side and its eyes fixed on Will. And all at once there was a perfume in the air, a faint but unmistakable whiff: his mother’s perfume.

“Of course not. That was the others. Poor fool you are. You’ll understand tomorrow.”

She wheeled round, but the cat had vanished. Will looked at Todd. Tomorrow was his eighteenth birthday, but why would he understand then?

“I think you should go, Todd. You might not be safe here.”

“Of course he can’t go!” snapped Granny. “Why do you think I made the boys in blue bring him back here? He’s the witness.”

 Jessica West

“What if I said no?” Will fidgeted under Granny’s glare.

Todd inched over closer to him, nudging Will’s arm with an elbow.

Her eyes narrowed. “I know what you’re thinking. If you run,” she gestured to Randy’s corpse on the living room floor, “your friend will end up like this young man.”

Will felt the shudder that ran through Todd, but to his friend’s credit, he held his ground.

“Who’s to say I won’t end up like that anyway?” Todd straightened to his full height. Though he was tall, he was also lanky. He didn’t exactly strike an intimidating figure. “Some weird shit’s going down, and you need to give us some answers.”

“Yeah,” Will said.

Grey, bushy brows rose high above Granny’s hazel eyes.

Still bolstered from Todd’s speech, Will spoke the words her glare had previously silenced. “And it seems like you need us more than we need you.”

Granny smiled and shook her head. She tilted it to one side as she appraised him. “I never thought you’d have the guts.”

Her smile struck Will as malevolent and proud at once, as though she were examining prey that had turned into a worthy opponent. Her features shifted to a blank expression as she lifted her hands. When Granny turned her palms up, lightening arced outward, shattering every bulb in the room. With one palm facing the window, she curled her fingers into claws.

The glass cracked and shattered.

With her other hand, she drained all colour from the room.

Peach walls and beige carpets bled out, leaving them black. The colours melted and burned midair, turning into a thick, dark syrup.

Granny guided the liquid into the shards of glass, the pane now a crackled black barrier against the light and life outside.

Drew Chial

Todd tried to pry the door open, kicking the wall for leverage. He tested the locks, but the door refused to carry out its function. Todd examined the crack. Molten glass had bled over the threshold.

“We’re fused in,” Todd tried to phone emergency services, “and it looks like that black stuff is killing my cell reception.”

Will couldn’t look away from his classmate’s corpse, “I’m more concerned about what happens when this smell starts circulating.”

Todd turned to Granny, knitting on the couch, confident her display of power had gotten the message across. The cat rubbed figure eights around Todd’s ankles, putting him in his place.

“What am I here to witness?”

Granny winked at the feline avatar, “The completion of a transaction. On the eighteenth birthday of the first son, the shadow lenders will collect payment.”

Todd shook his head, “Right, they’re malicious, but they won’t mess with minors, huh?”

Will threw a blanket over Randy’s body. “What do you mean, payment?”

Granny stretched her design to reveal a spiral symbol from some ancient alchemy stitched into the yarn. “Your mother sought benefactors for her invisibility cloak. They required a return on their investment. When the clock strikes midnight, they will come.”

Will scoffed. “She’s full of shit. I was born in the late afternoon. I was a fat fetus, took all day to deliver. Mum never tires of telling the story because she loves me. She would never offer me as payment to anyone.”

Granny nodded. “That was part of the deal. They wanted her to mother you, keep you nice and sweet. They have refined tastes.”

Will balled his hands to fists.

“Ha!” Todd tapped his phone. “The WiFi’s still up. Looks like she doesn’t have dominion over all the utilities, yet.”

Amira K. Makansi

While Todd frantically typed in a message to the local police via Facebook, Will stared between Granny and the grey cat, unsure whether the two were allies, enemies, or something in between. The courage he’d sought all his life seemed to hover before him, ready to snatch out of the air if he so chose. But between his mum missing, the strange cat, his Granny’s witchcraft, and the body buzzing with flies in front of him, Will wasn’t sure he wanted that courage.

“So where is my mum, then?” He asked innocently. He glanced at the cat for effect, inquiring if she was the cat, but Granny just smiled, peeling back her lips to reveal a perfect set of pearly whites.

“You guys are so loony,” Todd muttered.

In a blur of teeth, claws, and fur, the cat leapt past Will and latched itself onto Todd’s chest, clawing and biting with the fervour of a demon.

“I’d watch what you say, young man” Granny shouted above the clamour of the cat’s yowls and Todd’s shrieks of pain. “Tempers are frayed enough already!”

Will jumped to his friend’s defence, trying to pry the cat from Todd’s chest and neck, but was only rewarded with a sharp bite. For a moment it continued like that – Todd howling, Will scrabbling at the frenetic cat, and Granny watching the encounter with narrowed eyes.

Then, quite abruptly, she barked out several words in an alien language, whose sounds could only be described as ghoulish. The cat calmed, releasing Todd and dropping to the floor, cleaning its face as if nothing had ever happened. While Todd whimpered and surveyed his wounds, Will stared at his Granny.

“You’re not even on my side in this,” he said. “For God’s sake, Gran, what are you?”

Joanne Blaikie

“Well, I’ll tell you what I’m not. I’m not your grandmother, but you always suspected as much didn’t you?”

Will stood unflinching at the news.

“Go on. I’m listening. I mean, it’s not like I have a choice, now you have us captive here.” He gestured to the sealed door.

“That was a necessity,” the old woman snapped. “I told you when you found those papers that we must prepare, but would you listen?” She rose from the couch and glided over to Will. “It’s not easy to explain, but I am on your side. We hoped never to have to explain all this to you, but your mother’s work on that invisibility cloak remains incomplete and now they will make her pay.”

Will saw a look of sorrow cross her wizened features.

“Goodness knows I’ve done everything to protect her from this day!” She suddenly threw up her hands and, turning from Will, took a deep breath. “My name is Scareesha.” Her voice softened. “I am a Protector. There are many of my kind and our Order work against The Shadow Lenders. I was sent to protect your mother after she became embroiled with them.”

From behind the couch amber eyes flickered.

He was one of us.” She motioned to the body on the floor. “An immature, foolish Protector who got himself killed by them for meddling in matters beyond his comprehension, but a Protector nevertheless.”

“I wish you could lay an invisibility cloak on him.” Will balked at the stench emitting from the lifeless mass.

Scareesha considered the corpse for a moment, nodded, then stepped back. She raised a hand as before and a lightning bolt shot across the room. In a split second the body and blanket disintegrated into dust leaving no trace of Randy MacGuffin.

– ENDS –

You can read Part 3 of ‘The Pact’ here.

The Writers

Author of The Paradise Trees and The Cold Cold Sea, Linda Huber lives in Switzerland and teaches English in a medieval castle. lindahuber.net Jessica West is a freelance writer and editor and an independent author. She's the Pro Domme at Prose Before Ho Hos (see also Madame Editor), and maintains both a personal and bookish blog. Her newest release, Red River Rangers; A Whiskey & Wheelguns Novelette, is available at Amazon. Www.west1jess.com Drew Chial is an author, screenwriter, graphic artist, aspiring voice actor, and a musician living in Minnesota. He writes short stories that he bills as Twilight Zone fan fiction. His self-published horror novella Terms and Conditions is available for free on his website. drewchial.com Amira K. Makansi makes wine by day and worlds by night. When not writing, you will find her listening to music with a drink in hand. theseedstrilogy.com Author of The Paradise Trees and The Cold Cold Sea, Linda Huber lives in Switzerland and teaches English in a medieval castle. lindahuber.net

Author of The Paradise Trees and The Cold Cold Sea, Linda Huber lives in Switzerland and teaches English in a medieval castle. lindahuber.net

Jessica West is a freelance writer and editor and an independent author. She's the Pro Domme at Prose Before Ho Hos (see also Madame Editor), and maintains both a personal and bookish blog. Her newest release, Red River Rangers; A Whiskey & Wheelguns Novelette, is available at Amazon. west1jess.com

Jessica West is a freelance writer and editor and an independent author. You can find her at prosebeforehohos.com. She also maintains a personal and bookish blog. Her newest release, Red River Rangers; A Whiskey & Wheelguns Novelette, is available at Amazon. west1jess.com

Drew Chial is an author, screenwriter, graphic artist, aspiring voice actor, and a musician living in Minnesota. He writes short stories that he bills as Twilight Zone fan fiction. His self-published horror novella Terms and Conditions is available for free on his website. drewchial.com

Drew Chial is an author, screenwriter, graphic artist, aspiring voice actor, and a musician living in Minnesota. He writes short stories that he bills as Twilight Zone fan fiction. His self-published horror novella Terms and Conditions is available for free on his website. drewchial.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amira K. Makansi makes wine by day and worlds by night. When not writing, you will find her listening to music with a drink in hand. theseedstrilogy.com

Amira K. Makansi makes wine by day and worlds by night. When not writing, you will find her listening to music with a drink in hand. theseedstrilogy.com artz3.wordpress.com

Joanne Blaikie is a part-time teacher from the UK. She is currently writing her first novel; a children’s epic fantasy story in three volumes. fredamoya.wordpress.com

Joanne Blaikie is a part-time teacher from the UK. She is currently writing her first novel; a children’s epic fantasy story in three volumes. fredamoya.wordpress.com