Thursday, 22 December 2011

National Short Story Day Story

In honour of National Short Story Day, here's a story of mine which first appeared in Transmission magazine in 2007. Hope you enjoy it!

Can you spare a minute?

Daniel stands at the top of Market Street, just down from the corner; JJB Sports behind him, BHS opposite. This is his pitch; his spot. This is the best place.

He clutches the black plastic clipboard close to his chest and watches the groups of people walk towards and past him. Some see him early and cross the width of the pedestrianised area to avoid him. Some don't see him at all and walk close by. Either way, few stop. Undeterred, he offers his call to each one who comes near enough.

"... just a few minutes?..."

"... spare a few minutes?..."

"...can you just?..."

"...a few minutes?...."

"...spare a?..."

"...can you?..."


"'ll just take a sec."

Some brush past him. They see his shining eager face, his cold fingers creased round the edge of the black plastic clipboard, the other hand reaching out, imploring, and they keep their heads down and walk on.

Some glance at him and then away, quickly, as if he has some kind of disease which could be caught simply by looking at him.

Some look up long enough for him to catch their eye, but then they smile and shake their heads and keep moving, putting distance between them.

Many others, whether they look up at him or not, utter their own mantra in this traditional call and response, with all the rote dullness and precision of catechism.

"...sorry, no time..."

"...I can't spare any..."

" time..."

"...have to be somewhere..."

"...maybe on my way back..."

"...five minutes ago..."

"...can't at the moment..."

"... I haven't got the time to spare."

But every once in a while, one stops. He tilts the clipboard away from his chest and explains what he wants. They give Daniel his few minutes and, he likes to think, they go away feeling better and lighter for doing so. He feels he's doing them a service and each one he is able to help makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Daniel stays at his pitch longer than he should. He stays through rush hour and out the other side. The people on the streets now are a mix of those going home after working late and those heading out for the evening. In either case they have no time for him.

With a resigned shrug of his thin shoulders, he turns and starts to walk away from the bright lights and towards the lesser-travelled parts of town. The buildings he passes now are older, more worn, their facades crumbling and stained. Some of them have their windows boarded up but, as he walks down the road, more and more of them are bricked up, revenants of the window tax. Mist gathers and the tarmac becomes broken under his feet, rough cobbles emerging from under. The sound of the city dies at his back and the clump and thud of his boots on the ground becomes more noticeable. The streetlights soften and start to hiss. A horse goes past pulling a coach as Daniel turns into a narrow alley between two warehouses. He walks its length to the small wooden door at the far end. Candle-light glows from the window as he grasps the handle and presses the catch. The door opens with a soft creak and the smoke from the woodstove billows out past his face, carrying with it a smell of watery stew.

Daniel steps into the room and closes the door, he turns and places the wooden board he's carrying onto the worn table. An old woman, his mother, stands at the stove and stirs a large pot. She looks over and smiles at him, pleased to see him home. He smiles back and raises his eyebrows in a question. She shakes her head and goes back to her stirring.

Turning his attention to the room's other occupant, Daniel steps forward to see him better in the firelight. His father's bed, nothing more than a wooden pallet with a rag-stuffed mattress, was moved downstairs when he grew ill, to bring him nearer the warmth of the fire. He lies, propped up in the bed, wearing all the clothes he owns, most of them reduced to rags themselves, merging him with the mattress below. His gaunt face peers out from atop this mass, old and lined, but smiling and expectant.

"Danny, lad. You're back. Did you get me some?"

Daniel nods. "Yes, Dad. I did. "

His father licks his lips and some saliva dribbles down through the cracked flesh of his lips. Daniel feels vaguely disgusted for a moment, but then realises that he can see the wall through the edges of his father's face, ragged edges where he is starting to fade, and the feeling is replaced by one of urgency. He pushes his hands into his pockets and brings them out again, full. He opens them and shimmering jewels fall slowly onto the table top like insubstantial glass snowflakes.

He gestures to them. "It's the usual kind of thing, Dad."

He picks one up and gazes into it. It looks like a large diamond, but compresses between his fingers like jelly. In its heart there is a shimmer, which resolves into images of a man sitting at a desk, waiting.

"A couple of minutes waiting for a computer to boot up."

He drops this one and picks up another containing a woman in a coat. "Just over six minutes waiting for a bus."

A third, a man standing, staring into space. "The photocopier needed to warm up. Nearly a minute."

He drops the three fragments of time and looks back up at his father. "The usual. Nearly six hours in all." He picks up another, this one much larger than the others. "This was a three hour exam."

"Only six?..." His mother has turned from the stove, her face fallen.

"Only?" says his father. "It'll do me, and it doesn't matter what kind of time you've got, son. It's all the same to those of us who need it. And wasted minutes can feel like years." He reaches up to the tabletop and grabs a handful of the jewels. He squeezes them between his fingers and the light in the heart of each bursts and flows over his hand like water from a sponge. Slowly, the light fades as it soaks into his skin; skin which is now a little younger, a little firmer, a little more there.

Daniel looks around the room and sees the candles have been replaced with gas lamps, the window has thick curtains to keep out the cold, and his father's bed now has an iron frame with a proper mattress.

His father takes the second handful and squeezes them. The lamps become electric bulbs, the bed a floral divan on thick plastic legs. The pot his mother is still stirring is sitting on the electric ring of a cooker. She looks around, still trying to keep the disappointment from her face.

"Nineteen sixty or so, I'd say," his father comments. "Not bad at all." He looks up at Daniel. "But we'll still need more tomorrow."

Daniel nods, but then can't hold it anymore and breaks into a smile.

"What?" his father asks.

"Maybe not," Daniel replies. Struggling to hold his excitement he reaches into his inside pocket and brings out a jewel the size of a cricket ball.

His mother, having turned at the sound of Daniel's excited voice, gasps. "That looks like..."

Daniel nods. "It's a whole day."

His father reaches out a hand towards it, but pulls back, almost afraid to touch it. "How...?" he asks.

"A woman gave it to me. It was a day not of wasted time, but a day she no longer wanted. It was a day of sharing, a day of wonder. A day of beauty." Daniel can feel tears catch in the back of his throat. "It was a day of sitting, watching the clouds move over hills, of watching flowers open and turn their heads to follow the sun, a day with a box and a ring. A day of love and laughing and joy." He falters for a moment as he remembers the woman's tale. "But she lost the one she shared it with. She no longer wanted it, and when I told her what it would be used for-"

"You told her the truth?" his father asks.

"Yes. I told her about you and us and -" he gestures round the room, "- all this. And she gave it to us with her blessing. It was such a beautiful day that with her loss, it brings her nothing but pain and suffering. The thought that it could bring us as much joy as it used to bring her, was all she wanted to know. She gave it willingly and left with a smile on her face and a weight removed from her heart."

His father looks up from his bed with tears in the corners of his eyes. "You know what this means, don't you, son?"

"Yes, Dad. I do. It means we can finally go home."

Daniel presses the giant jewel, coloured with the greenest of grasses and the bluest of skies, into his father's hands and together they squeeze it, feeling it burst between them like an overripe peach, its juices surprisingly warm and soft. The bright light crawls over their fingers, growing brighter, up their arms and out, over their bodies and over the room, covering everything; brighter and brighter until all that remains is light.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Dark in here, isn't it?

Well, I promised you a third post today, on darkness, and here it is.

A little while ago, poet Cathy Bryant kindly commented on one of my stories: 'You do dark better than anyone currently writing, I think' and that got me thinking.

I do venture into the dark side with my writing, it's true, but I still sometimes feel uncomfortable about it. Things like swearing, violence, death and just plain nastiness all feature, but part of me worries that readers will think it's me that's like that and start to steer clear of me.

Of course, this is silly, but it is something I worry about. And yet, I think it's important and something which is missing from my past novel writing.

You see, when I write a flash, I can throw in a little bit of darkness and then walk away from it. When I write a novel, I find it harder to deal with. Last year, for NaNoWriMo I wrote a book with zombies, aliens, vampires and robots in it. There were many deaths and quite a bit of violence. So far, so good. But all the characters in it were nice, and pleasant. Even the guy who I'd set up to be a bit of a player, a bit of a cad, turned out to be nice in the end. The monsters were largely off-stage and always beatable. There were no extremes of light and dark, and no real bad-guy to focus on, and I think that was it's failing.

You see, the good guys in a story can never really be good unless we see how bad the bad guys are. If Star Wars hadn't had Darth Vader then the bad guy would have been the disreputable smuggler, Han Solo, and it would have been pants.

So, I'm aware that I need to put in a bad guy, without which I won't have jeopardy. And I need to make things genuinely threatening, not just kinda, you know, a little bit, whoo, that was close.

And I need to not worry what people will think of me when I write it. I've been reading some dark things recently and I think I've realised when that association with the writer arises. If the darkness is there because the author wants it to be there, and they crowbar it in - if it's gratuitous - then you start to think 'Blimey, Writer X is a twisted weirdo' and that's because the dark doesn't arise naturally from the story. However, when the darkness is part of the plot, and a driving force of the story, then you forget about the writer. It's just what is happening to the characters, as nasty and horrible as it might be.

I like to think that I'm never gratuitous and that the dark in my stories arises purely because the narrative needs it. I think that my slightly oblique, slightly tentative approach to it is the cause of Cathy's comment. The sparing nature of the darkness in my flashes makes it all the darker.

So, my lesson in darkness is that oblique works better than full-on, but that the darkness needs to be there, otherwise no matter how bright the light, it'll only ever be grey.

Moves Like Janus

Okay, this is the entry I planned to write. I think the previous one happened because the list in the previous previous post felt like a bunch of questions that needed answering.

Anyhoo, here I am, being Janus, looking backwards and forwards at the same time. So, what can I see?

Well, just over a year ago I was published in Bugged, and since then my writing life has changed. Jo Bell (editor of Bugged) even commented recently that she had created a monster. I've had publications nearly every month since my October 2010 appearance in Bugged, and I've now written over 270 flash fictions (more than 135,000 words, if you prefer). As I mentioned before one whole month worth of flash365 is currently under consideration with a publisher, and a large section of the current month's stories will be appearing on Radio 4 on Christmas Eve.

In terms of success it's been quite a year. Hell, I even had a poem published in the Best of Manchester Poets Volume 2! But what else? That's what I've been asking myself.

Because if I have been doing all this writing, what has been its purpose? Is it really just a tool to make myself write more and more stories for publications, or is there something deeper? If it's the former, then it's done it's job. If the latter, then what? And what can I learn from the past year as I move forward into the next?

Well, in the past twelve months I've written the 31 collection and, of course, 245 stories under the flash365 banner. In all of those stories I have attempted to write in different genres, different, styles, address different topics, and generally push myself into new areas of writing. It's impossible to do this without learning about yourself as a writer in terms of what you prefer to write, what you're actually good at writing, and the limitations that you place on yourself.

I've realised that I'm quite good at this short-short story malarky. I have the confidence now that I can sit down and write a complete - and sometimes not half-bad - story every day. I know that if I sit down and start, the story will come. However, I also know that I can't just go on writing these for ever. They take me away from the possibility of other things. As long as I do a tiny story every day, I feel I've done enough. I thought they would prime the pump for more, but they have become the end, rather than the means.

So, I'm already starting to think beyond the end of flash365 and towards what might come next. I don't want to simply carry on and change the name to flash730. That's not to say I'm going to stop writing flashes, it's just I feel that the benefit I'm getting as a writer from this particular activity - a flash a day - is starting to lessen.

And I'm starting to think about writing a novel. Now, I've already written four of them, and they all live in my drawer. I don't want to simply create another one to join them, I want to produce something that I think can be published, but also something which I think represents my best work.

The ideas for this novel have emerged from looking back at the year's flash writing. You see, the process has, as I mentioned above, shown me what I'm good at and what I like to do. Surely this is the seam I need to mine for the larger lode of a novel?

Most of my stories could be considered as belonging to a genre like fantasy, horror, sci-fi, or even crime, but none of them fit firmly within any one of those genres. I tend to tell a story about the real world as seen through a distorting lens, rather than embracing a whole 'world-building' kind of thing. So, that would seem to be a good place to start.

What else? Well, it seems that I do funny quite well, so I need to include that. In some of my previous novel attempts I have tried to do 'serious' and while that has its merits, I think I get bored. And if I'm bored, you can bet my readers are. So I need to remember to bring the fun and the funny.

I also, seemingly, do 'dark' well. The constant repetition of deaths, serial killers, and other homicidal impulses in my stories suggests that I need to head in that direction too. I am aware that I sometimes shy away from this, and that I tend to be quite oblique in my darkness, but it still needs to be there. (I have another blog post to write on this whole issue at some point. Maybe later, eh? A three-post day?)

What else? Well, I think I need to bring my flash-writing into it. November's linked stories were very successful with the audience. I managed to create something like a cross between a TV series and Rashomon, where 30 different perspectives of the same event also unfolded a larger story. Why not bring some of that to the novel?

In the past, I have thought of novels as a single large story which needs telling. But why not embrace the complexity that I seem to enjoy so much, and fragment at least some of the narrative?

So, what does that give me? A novel with some element of flash-fictions embedded in it which looks at the world with a skewed eye and sees the humour and the darkness in it. Sounds good to me.

I'm also going to take some of my own advice and actually plan and structure this one a little before I start it. I usually start to see where it goes, and that doesn't seem to have worked for me in the past. This time, let's take a new tack and see what happens. And, again, I think I can learn from flash365. Writing every day seems to work for me, so I shall do that with the novel. But the reason why I've been able to keep it up is due to the structure imposed by the prompts. So, if I plan the novel ahead of time, creating in effect a series of prompts, then I should be able to keep up the momentum.

Anyway, that's it for now, looking back, taking stock, and moving it on into the next thing. Any thoughts on this would be welcome. Me, I'm off to plan a novel.

Did he do well?

December the 20th already?! Must be time to take stock of the year, look forward to the next one, and post one of my sporadic blog entries!

So, what's been happening since I last waffled to you? Well, I had a list in my last entry, let's see how I did:

30 flash365 stories for November - I was planning to write these early to lighten my load. It didn't happen. However, the stories which did emerge were, I think, amongst my best yet. I managed to write a whole series of linked stories which were both stand-alone and a single piece. The whole collection is currently with a fabulous publisher and I hope will come out as a pamphlet sometime next year. So, you know, that's okay.

I then found I had to write all of December's stories early. All 31 were done before the 9th December. This was so they could be passed on to the BBC who are going to broadcast 15 or so of them. So, if you want to hear them, they will be on Radio 4 at 5.30pm on Christmas Eve, read by Rory Kinnear, Emelia Fox, Kenneth Cranham and Diana Rigg! (The podcast will be up after the broadcast at

30 days of NaNoWriMo novel writing (1,667 words a day) - nah, never happened. I decided it was just one too many things to try and do. Next year, maybe. Though I have other novel plans in the pipeline. More on that below.

start work on the rewrites for my York Notes - started, yes, and got good feedback from the editor that I am on the right lines. Then I stopped to do all the other things I had to do. Need to restart soon as they all have to be done by 15th Jan. But, you know, there was this blog to write and - ooh, squirrel!

mark student work which will start arriving soon - this has taken up most of the last 6 weeks. It's quite ridiculous really. Still, there was some really good work in there, including an essay to which I gave one of my highest marks ever. That's always a pleasure.

continue promoting National Flash Fiction Day including building a website and running a competition - This carried on, and the website was finally built. It's up at if you fancy a look. Of course, with something like this, the workload grows, so I currently find myself putting together an Arts Council bid, as you do.

read the entries for the new edition of Word Gumbo and put the issue together - managed this, late but in earnest. And, I have to say, it's a great issue. Why not have a read:

pay a visit to Manchester at the end of the month to read at Bad Language - This was a great event. It was fab to be back in Manchester with all my friends. Being upstaged by David Gaffney and Sarah-Clare Conlon was dispiriting but expected. Still, I think Lucy Burkhampton went down well.

submit stories, as per usual - This also went by the board. However, with November's stories being considered for a pamphlet and December's being broadcast on Radio 4, I don't feel too bad about this. Still, with the Christmas break now upon me, I'm hoping to get a whole bunch sent out.

teach - yep.

and finally, live - this did happen, occasionally, and I need, as ever, to thank Kath for her support, and for making those moments of life so good! And, of course, to Milo, without whom my life would be a dark, dank, stinking hole.

Anyway, that wasn't what I was planning to blog about at all. I was going to do so much more... Ah well, I think I'll drop this coin in the fountain, and write another one. You know, the one I actually planned to write... So, don't go anywhere, I'll be back in a minute.