This may shock you, but I rarely use this blog to mention the rejection emails I receive. I do get them, though. Lots of them. Most weeks, that thrilling little (1) symbol appears in my inbox and I think ‘ooh! what exciting missive might this be?? A job offer? A party invite? A million pound advance?’ Only to find another ‘we are sorry to inform you…’ or ‘unfortunately, on this occasion…’ Apart from in a few rare cases, I don’t feel disappointed. It’s not like I haven’t been warned of this workplace hazard. So I just file the rejections away, think of J.K.Rowling getting multiple rejections for her Harry Potter manuscript and remember Margaret Atwood’s stern advice: ‘nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.’
Anyway, with that context, it’s a lovely feeling to occasionally receive a email that begins with ‘we are delighted to inform you…’ And today, I did! My short-short story – Keep Calm and Carry On – was short-shortlisted today for Retreat West’s Flash Fiction contest. You can read about the contest by clicking here. Funnily enough, RW had announced their longlist back in December, but I hadn’t even noticed. This is thanks to another technique I have for managing the disappointment of rejection: entering contests then forgetting all about them.
The winner will be announced in March, and will be selected by David Gaffney, acclaimed flash fiction author. The whole shortlist will be published in RW’s anthology, though, and gets a £15 prize. Does this mean I can call myself a paid writer now?
I wrote this piece yesterday based on a prompt from a friend: 300 words that take place in the time between putting a piece of bread in the toaster and it popping up. I wrote it on breaks between rereading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (which makes much more sense, for some reason, at 27 than it did at 22). As a result, the characters came out a lot like Tony and Sarah West, from that novel.
Dark or Light
You’ve chosen well with Kerri, Mrs West mused, slotting two slices of granary into the toaster. Girls take after their mothers, you know, so she shan’t lose her figure. Dark or light?
Dark, I lied. Mrs West turned the dial from three to five.
The measure of a man is how he treats his mother, supposedly, she continued. Her dressing-gown was silk: a peacock feather pattern. Something her undeserving husband had picked up on a business trip no doubt; a guilt purchase, when exiting some sleazy spa. It billowed open as she moved around the kitchen balletically, plucking jam, butter, teaspoons. I tried not to look. How about your mother, Dominic, Mrs West was asking now, do you treat her well?
Oh yes, I began, hoping that something witty might materialise after. It didn’t; I left the sentence trailing upwards, a rollercoaster track without a dip. Mrs West’s hair was still bed tousled, I realised. But her lipstick was perfectly applied; pillar-box red.
Then she was looking at me. Hands on the counter (and I noted that her fingernails were pillar-box red too), her lips parted, her eyes daring me to confront her clavicle. I could smell burning. Is this what love feels like, I thought, burning? Or lust maybe, real lust, and my heart was pounding: I could hear my blood in my ears, and I wondered if Mrs West could too. Do it Dominic, I thought, she wants you to, there’ll be other Kerri’s, and I leaned forward an inch before Mr West had burst in and – BANG! – slotted a bullet into my skull.
Except of course not, but there the toast was, in its blackened glory, with Mrs West saying shall I ask you again Dominic, or are you hoping I’ll guess, is it marmite or jam?
This is a quick piece of flash fiction I wrote yesterday. The jumping off point was a prompt about a cliff and a lily, but the finished product ended up nowhere near that.The word count, this time, was 500 words. I did 498. Flash Fiction – I am learning – is a real challenge. There’s really only room to introduce one character, one scene, one idea, and doing so with any kind of depth is prettttty tricky.
Keep Calm and Carry On
I’ve a pad of inspirational quotes – one for each day – stuck to my fridge. My sis gave ‘em last Christmas. ‘Big ideas for yer little head, Neil, maybe you’ll be inspired and like, leave the house?’ Princess Angelica, I think, I see your idea and raise it. I’ll live that pad, 365 days of inspirationeil. I say that, laughing, but she walks out shaking her head. Probably to give our parents the pity report. Bide your time, Neily, I think. Christmas 2017, show ‘em all then, just bide it.
Jan’s great. I dance like no-one’s watching and it’s easy: no-one is. I twat around to Queen, get my hooverin’ done too. Next, I live, laugh and love – bit more abstract but fully doable: Terry and I watch Fools and Horses on G.O.L.D and laugh our arses off. Terry’s my hamster: I love that furry bastard. I give him double treats as a random act of kindness, no stress. Terry’s over the bloody moon.
Feb I have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Metaphor, I know, but I’m leaning in 100%. I pick Patrick – homeless fella on the high street round the corner. Never knew his name before, he takes some persuading but eventually he takes my Doc Martens as a holding deposit and I march his bashed up Cons along the canal. I have a good think about Patrick the whole way, really empathising. I’m practically in tears when I get back, but the bastard’s done a runner. Unlucky for him, he picks the shop doorway below my flat to hide in. Lucky for him, I’m still down about his parents lettin’ him sleep outside Debenhams, so I say keep the shoes, come for tea.
I do us waffles and beans. Pat wants sausages but I’m veggie, I say. Since I got Terry, I tell him, not got the heart. Pat just eats. I point out the pad on the fridge, explain all, how it inspired today’s events. He shrugs, asks what’s tomorrow. It’s not protocol, but he’s a guest so I check. When you get knocked down, roll over and look at the stars. It’s a clear night, I say, let’s go on the roof. I been knocked down and looked at stars enough, Pat says. A tinny convinces him.
Roof’s quiet, Orion’s Belt’s out, inspiration feels like it’s working. Friends AND hobbies, I think, next Christmas Neil, you’ll show ‘em. You feel any calmer, I ask, more inspired? Calmer than what, says Patrick, I need a piss. I give him a key to get out and back in. When he slams the door it’s the only sound on the street.
Thirty minutes, no return. Don’t be hurt Neil, I think, he doesn’t know it’s the only key. I stay lying down in the peaceful silence, wondering whether today is a day when good things come to those who wait or a day to take a leap and trust I’ll land on my feet.
While working on my MA this year, I’ve really tried to focus on identifying and combating my weaknesses as a writer. It turns out it’s very easy to identify weaknesses. Here are some I’ve identified myself, by looking at the habits and strengths of successful writers:
the boundary between emotive and shlocky
working without tangible evidence of progress or success
writing comedy that is actually funny
writing romance that isn’t cheesy/cliche
writing convincing dialogue
And, for fun, here are some I’ve had pointed out to me:
your main character is too superficial and self absorbed to be likable (damn lady, that character is me)
you rely too much on rhyme in your poems
your dialogue is unrealistic
this has been done before so many times that I think if you’re going to do it, you need to do it WELL
I don’t like sci-fi so it’s difficult for me to critique it (but could you try though please, creative writing teacher)
I don’t like fantasy so it’s difficult for me to critique it (but could you try though please, creative writing teacher)
I don’t really write short stories so it’s hard for me to critique it (can I have some of my seven grand back please, teacher)
please stop rhyming all of your poems
‘People carrier’ is not convincing sci-fi language, I don’t think people would say that in real life
FFS do you literally only know words that rhyme
Ok, I’ve gone off on a tangent now. But the point is: I am trying to focus on setting myself challenges which target my weaknesses. This flash fiction piece was an attempt to target the following:
I tried to find a picture on the topic of heaven but couldn’t find anything particularly relevant. Instead, here’s a picture of Pete and me on the ‘Heaven and Earth’ bicycle tour of Hoi An in 2014, and at the Danang Intercontinental resort the next day (the closest I’ve come to heaven on earth so far).
Seeing as this is a challenge to target my weaknesses – PLEASE feel welcome to offer some critique/criticism (particularly relating to dialogue, comedy and the effectiveness of the piece as a whole) in the comment section.
Checking In, Checking Out
The pearly gates are furry, not pearly. Imagine that! I read the information plaque just after I joined the queue: a misprint that got out of hand, apparently. And it’s leopard print! Going by what I’ve seen of the lobby, leopard print and gingham are the height of fashion here in heaven.
Angel bouncers are a misconception too – those decisions are all made electronically nowadays. Well – there is an angel, but he’s more ‘fancy spa receptionist’ than ‘shit nightclub doorman’, vibe-wise. I reach the front desk after two hours. Angel gives me a glass of watermelon juice, a glowing smile and a sing-song greeting.
“Hello and a very warm welcome to Earth Heaven, may I take a surname for yourself please, sir?”
In case you’re wondering: yes, it was unexpected.
“Fabulous Mr Trent sir, thank you. Okay, bear with me, bear with me… George is it?”
Angel swallowed a guffaw before apologising stoically. Turns out George is slang in Earth Heaven for a fluorescent pubic wig. Pretty rich considering his name-tag read ‘Colostomy Southampton’ and I hadn’t said a bloody thing.
“Fabulous! Okay, Mr Trent sir, bear with me… okay. First and foremost: you bashed your head on an outcropping of rock while bouldering with your girlfriend in the Dordogne, correct?”
“Well, she’s my wife actually, but- ”
“Oops, terribly sorry, it was your honeymoon, bear with me… Okay that’s sorted for you… Can I just confirm with yourself that this collision caused a large intracranial haemorrhage which increased intracranial pressure, prevented blood supply to your brain and subsequently resulted in death for yourself?”
“Sorry Mr Trent, I know it seems like stating the obvious, it’s just a little formality we have to run through with yourself sir for legal reasons, terribly sorry sir.”
It was only at this point that I mustered the wherewithal to ask if my wife was ok. My blood ran cold as Colostomy’s brow furrowed sympathetically. Well it might have done, had my blood not ceased to circulate my body as a direct consequence of my recent death.
“Unfortunately not, Mr Trent, sir.” Colostomy patted my forearm reassuringly. “According to these records she’s gutted, actually sir.”
“So she’s alive?!”
“Oh! Sorry, yes, alive. Definitely alive! Misunderstood your question there. DOIYNNNG!” Colostomy mimed a slapstick halo tug. “I honestly think, Mr Trent, I’d lose my own halo if it wasn’t an integral component of my immortal, celestial form! On that topic though, Mr Trent sir, I can actually at this juncture offer you a free upgrade to our couples package for no additional cost, is that something you’d be interested in at all today, Mr Trent?”
“It’s something we offer all new arrivals sir, although I should point out that whatever decision you make for yourself and Mrs Trent is final, sir; once it’s in the system I can’t undo it under any circumstances.”
“Hang on. Are you asking if I want you to kill Jenny?” Colostomy giggled uncomfortably, shifting in his ergonomic gingham cloud chair.
“Well, in a word, sir, yes. Though many customers prefer to think of it as offering their spouse the chance to get to heaven early and remain with their loved one. Yourself, in this case! Unfortunately I will need to press you for a quick decision on this one.”
“That’s horrific! Jenny’s only 28! She deserves to live a long and prosperous life! To know what it feels like to look into the eyes of her-”
“Okay, I’ve popped you down as a no for that one Mr Trent, since we are pressed for time – may I remind you that Mrs Trent will almost definitely die anyway within the next fifty to sixty years, and she is currently operating on a 78% likelihood of coming to heaven, at which point we’ll be back in touch with yourself, Mr Trent. So no worries, it’s – what’s that Earth phrase – six and two threes really, isn’t it sir? Oh no, not that one… Much of a muchness!” He laughed, muttering the phrase under his breath a few times. “Does that all sound okay to you, Mr Trent, sir?”
Now, in a moment I’ll give you your welcome pack and my colleague will be along to show you to your room. There’s an orientation presentation which screens hourly in the recreation room. Any questions you have will hopefully be answered then. Does that all sound alright for yourself, Mr Trent, sir?”
“Ah! Here’s Pam: she’ll show you to your room and answer any other questions you have along the way, okay?” Colostomy hauled a gingham holdall onto his desk and smiled at me with finality. “Here’s Mr Trent’s welcome pack, Pam. He’s on the 532nd floor. Oh, and double room please, he opted IN to the couples package-”
“No, I opted OUT of-”
“Of course, haha! Pam, I’m as useful as a lead halo today! I’ll just call my manager and get that sorted, okay, best of luck to yourself there sir, Mr Trent, sir, bye bye!”
Before I had chance to respond, Colostomy had disappeared and I found myself struggling to keep up with Pam through a labyrinth of corridors.
“Pam is it?” I called after her, hoping to slow her down. “Lovely, a good traditional English name, reminds me of an aunt I used to-”
Pam turned to me and beamed.
“French, actually! Short for Pamplemousse! Pamplemousse Apartheid. And I know what you’re going to ask next so before you do: no, you can’t meet him, 33 years old and yes but they rotate the menu weekly. Hang on, my phone’s ringing.”
Pam coughed, vomiting a cloud of pixels from her throat which formed into the shape of Colostomy’s face in the air in front of us.
“Hiya Pam, could you just pop Mr Trent back to reception for me for a moment, love? Just an extra admin thing to sort, you’re both going to laugh when you hear it!”
This is my favourite thing that I have written. It is a short story which came from a discussion with Pete. He claimed that, if given the chance, he would become immortal. I argued that being immortal was a bad idea because, eventually, you would get buried alive; being buried alive as well as being immortal is about the most awful thing I can imagine. Pete said that actually, it wouldn’t be so bad because the human mind is a powerful thing and would find a way to deal with it.
Fun fact: I wrote this story while staying in an Alpine lodge in Slovenia and, half way through writing it, I looked up to find three goats had joined me in the living room and were looking at me expectantly. They were total jerks but we hung out for the rest of the week anyway.
All Good Things Come To An End Only two things mattered in the life of Philip Masterson. The first was that – due to a miraculous and marvellous medical advancement of his own making three years earlier – he was entirely immortal. That is to say: his life could not be ended by any means. If an appendage or organ were to be removed, no matter how viciously, it would regrow in seconds. If he were to be obliterated by an explosion, collision with a large vehicle or careful dicing, he would fantastically reform. His ‘vital’ organs were impervious to ‘deadly’ gases, poisons and powders. Some critics postulated that this state of existence was not actually immortality; seeing as he did not require food, oxygen or water to survive he was, in their view, not alive at all. Philip Masterson graciously acknowledged these suggestions but asserted that, for all intents and purposes, he felt alive. And what was life but a chain of feelings?
The second important thing about Philip Masterson was that at some point in his past he had – following an ugly altercation with one of his more impassioned critics – been buried alive.
Philip did not know for how long he had been buried alive. He had no way of telling the time, since he had not been wearing a watch at the moment of his burial and there was no light inside his coffin.
For the first few hours of his incarceration, as you might expect, Philip had tried to escape. Having no tools with which to do this, and with the coffin being made of metal and residing under several feet of hardened concrete, his attempts did not last long.
For the next few days Philip battled with what psychologists refer to as the ‘Kübler-Ross model’ or, more commonly, ‘the five stages of grief’. Those same psychologists might say that he was grieving his lost existence. He started by flirting with anger at the perpetrators of his entrapment. Then he attempted denial and lay patiently waiting to wake up for a while. In the bargaining phase he optimistically appealed to Pan, Shiva and Jesus Christ in the vain hope that one of them might answer and rescue him. He felt terrible self-pity in the depression phase. He couldn’t really think of a fate more deserving of his pity than being both immortal and buried alive. It was a relief when he reached the acceptance phase and was able to lie still and feel a bit less. He had a nap and recuperated.
After the first fortnight, the stifling claustrophobia that accompanied the acceptance of his fate became too exhausting to sustain. Waiting to be rescued or discovered was not a stimulating enough hobby. On the first Monday of the third week, the shedding of sanity could happily begin.
The next day, Philip decided to move into a mansion in his mind. He wasted no time with estate agents, solicitors or surveyors. In the real world – even with all of the wealth that his scientific discovery had brought him – he had had to stay within a reasonable distance of his children’s secondary school. The mansion that Philip found in his mind had the advantage of not being near anything – and not needing to be. On the front lawn stood a rectangular pond. Among the water lilies on its surface sat six stone frogs which periodically and whimsically exchanged jets of water from their half open, smiling mouths. He had seen something similar at a theme park as a child. The water in the pond oscillated between rich cerise and a cool cerulean. He had always loved the fountains in Barcelona that at night-time were illuminated in Technicolor. It was a bonus that his fountains stayed lit during the day. When he wanted it to, the water tasted like Dandelion and Burdock.
Sometimes in the evenings he would take a long bath. His bath was made of glass. Within the glass, beautiful tropical fishes darted and danced. On other evenings he would recline in his back garden with a pint of homemade ale and play Scrabble with himself. He always used all of his letters and the words he found were always satisfying. Contrary to popular belief, constant success did not become boring.
Philip learned to knit, to play the sitar and to recite the entire works of Shakespeare in twenty languages. His next plan was to write his own language and to translate the great works himself. He would learn to recite that too. He had another idea to watch all of the Hitchcock films in a row and to compress each one into a haiku. Philip’s evenings stretched out in front of him like endless, rolling hilltops.
Back in the metal coffin, deep beneath the surface of the earth and weighed down by several feet of hardened cement remained the real, live Philip Masterson. His wife, his children, his captors and his dog were all long dead. If anyone was left above the surface and had the inclination to uncover him, they would see a man who looked as though he was in a deep and very peaceful sleep.
Sometime later – at the point that the sun expanded into a red giant and consumed the planet Earth where he had once resided – Philip believed himself to be sat in his garden, reading the newspaper and eating a Big Mac.