Reflections: Reading and Writing Short Fiction

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Writing Short Fiction: The Word Count Limbo

JG Ballard once said in an interview:

“I am very grateful that I started my career as a writer writing short stories because you really learn your craft. You can also explore yourself; if you write a huge number of short stories it doesn’t take you long to realize you have certain strengths and weaknesses and that your imagination leans towards one corner of the compass. I think young writers today are tempted into writing novels far too early.”

That pretty well matches up with my experience as a writer so far. And I would add that short stories are a great way to get your name out there, either by sharing them on a blog or submitting to anthologies and journals.

I started out writing fragments of stories: just ideas, really, but written as prose rather than notes, and usually in first person. I progressed to writing ‘proper’ flash fiction with more curated content between 300 and 1,000 words. I wrote them in great numbers and shared them in multiple formats, so I got lots of feedback on what worked and what didn’t. In particular I learned where the uniqueness of my style shone and where it felt forced or mechanical. Continue reading “Reflections: Reading and Writing Short Fiction”

Shreds of Thought: Rhythm and Reasons and Life

I love the shape of words when they are under the spell of a poet. Every word fights for its place on the page and only the most potent survive. Perhaps better than reading poetry, though, is hearing it performed. There is passion in its delivery; rhythm and reason and life transferred directly from the poet’s body unto their congregation.

Good poetry conveys visceral knowledge that we all share deep down whether we realise it or not. It summons something common to have yet rare to behold, and teases it up towards the surface. It taps into a stream most of us have paved over with asphalt, and brings forth the purity of spring water. The taste will be bitter for some, but that’s on us and our tainted expectations of what truth should taste like. Extreme impacts like violence and drugs are as much a part of the human experience as love and security.

I used to write poetry to explore things I could understand in no other terms. I mythologised myself. Put my deepest feelings into symbol and code. And only my mind was the key that would translate the true meaning. My rhythm and reason and life. I made only one copy of each poem, typed out on an old-fashioned typewriter complete with overtyped errors and emphasis thumped into the paper by my strongest fingertips. Those poems were stolen one day, by a man who wanted my heart in a box. Perhaps, in a sense, he got what he craved.

I wonder, do poems expire? Once on paper in their complete form do they begin to rot without the vital life force of their creators’ key? Perhaps that’s why so many great works are printed on limited runs and cannot always be bought via the usual channels. Perhaps the words leave the pages behind and sink back into the ground, dissolving completely: eternally free now their job is done. Or perhaps they live on in their human hosts, kept close to the chest, ready to re-emerge in alternative configurations in some other place and time.

The Test

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85% or higher: that’s all Kaley needed to gain the gold star emoji next to her name on all social media platforms. The effect would be immense; everyone wanted to associate with a star. The Corporations would be falling over themselves to advertise on her page, and the crowd-funding for her comic books would boom. She’d be able to eat proper food again; maybe even dine out! She’d be able to buy from exclusive shopping sites, access the expert forums and apply for plane tickets. All she had to do was prove she was authentic.

  “I hope you’ve prepared!” said the cynical voice of a beggar crouched outside the dramatic, mirror-clad tower that was the test centre. Prepared? She thought. How can you prepare for an authenticity test; either you are, or you aren’t?  Continue reading “The Test”

Toxic Duck Inc.

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My life was pretty peachy before I caught the virus. At least, that’s what they tell me.

My partner, Jaz, and I had managed to save up enough money to travel the world and stay comfortable. We lived in full colour then; climbing mountains, skiing down them, eating in fancy restaurants… And at night, just like everyone else, we would put those little squashy pads against our temples and plug into our phones to upload the memories of the day to the cloud. They say it not only preserves your special moments for ‘fully immersive enjoyment’ another day, but it also improves the efficiency of sleep, security, and peace of mind. Except I have no peace, not anymore.

One evening, after a few drinks in the famous old Tokyo Mixology Lab, Jaz and I got back to our hotel and plugged in. No way were we going to risk losing the memories of that day! Then an alert box appeared on my screen:

Free updates are available. Apply now for extra security?

And I hit ‘yes’. Continue reading “Toxic Duck Inc.”

Smoke Rings

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My office is lit by a small lantern and smells faintly of tobacco even though I haven’t smoked for years. Strange, I think, how it’s still a source of temptation. I look up from piles of paperwork to see my animus slouched in the chair opposite. Just as I expect: legs apart, elbow resting on the desk, cigarette burning continuously. He wears the white linen suit I gave him with effortless style considering his lack of respect for convention. I imagine him firing me a disapproving look for working so late, but I can’t quite bring his face into focus.

“I sent you a load of new material,” he says.

“Yes, thank you; it’s great.”

“You haven’t written it down yet.”

“I’ve been working! You know, on the day job that keeps us sheltered and fed?”

My animus does not understand the concept of ‘day job’. Nor does he understand timing, completion, suppression, or putting things in boxes. Continue reading “Smoke Rings”

Psychopomp

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Johnny found Psychopomp while browsing drug categories on the dark web. It had 6,000 logged purchases worldwide but no user ratings, which the seller said was a true mark of its success: this was a trip from which there was no coming back.

It was three months since Romeo had passed. Accidental overdose. Johnny knew what they were all thinking, but they were wrong. Romeo wouldn’t do that, not even after the money and creativity had dried up. “You should be back out on the scene by now,” his friends said. They meant well, he knew, and cooping himself up in the flat staring at a dead man’s poetry on the walls was surely not a healthy way to spend his days.

He tore himself away from the bedsheets and reached for the fridge, taking out a three-day-old milk carton. A tentative sniff, a moment’s hesitation, then he drank from it anyway, not caring how much spilled. He wiped his mouth on a bare arm and turned back to look in the mirror beside the bed. Could use a shave. A wash, a hair comb; a pair of eyes that weren’t so grey with goddam heartache. His thoughts were interrupted by a clatter at the letterbox: fast, anonymous courier delivery. Psychopomp had arrived.

Continue reading “Psychopomp”

Reality Cuts

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I leapt up, startled, in the dead of night. I’d been dreaming of the past again, and couldn’t be sure whether the sounds I heard were mental and menacing or real and benign.

“The bastard’s in here – get him!”

The words drifted up to the first floor room where I stood, and tapped on the window. I recognised them instantly as the words of my tormenter from high school. What were they doing ringing so lucid, invading the truth and the now that I wanted?

I took on a fighting stance, just as my teacher had instructed. Feet apart and equally weighted, knees bent. My twin was wrapped in sheets, cowering in the corner behind me. I will protect you, I thought. There was a reason the sword was left for us in this way. I gripped it tightly and focused upon the muscles and strength needed to maintain the posture it demanded. My breath became deep and purposeful.

The words continued to scratch at the window, desperate to get in and meet my ears full-on. They were squeezing through the frame… I turned to face them and swiped the sword through the air in one clean movement, cutting the threats in two. They fell away slowly like feathers until they were nowhere to be heard.

I couldn’t allow my to guard drop straight away, for next there was a creaking on the landing outside my room. Footfall on floorboards, or the house choking? I wasn’t taking any chances and brought the sword down once again, this time in the direction of the door. But then I had the sensation that someone was in the room, standing over me. Someone unearthly and monstrous. My eyes wide in the dark, I couldn’t quite make a figure out, and dry tears stung from the strain of trying. With nothing to lose, I took another slash with the blade out in front of me and felt something drop into a heap on the floor. My twin rejoined me then, and in exhaustion we fell backwards onto the bed as one. Back to the land of dreams.

When the morning light came, my thoughts had returned to normal. There was a gash in the reality between my bed and the wardrobe where I had struck something. It was like a tear in a canvas, but not so neat as to hide the in between. The in between was black and full of eyes that glared, pulling me in. Azrael, they whispered to my bones. I remembered what my teacher had said though: leave the wound well alone until it is healed.

There were more cuts all over the house: far more than I could remember making. As I left for work, I stepped over the biggest of them all on the doorstep: the place where a bad memory had once been. It was gaping wide and as I peered in I saw thousands of twinkling stars. I resisted the temptation to touch them and walked away.

All of the cuts healed over the coming few days and a tension I had carried for many years dropped from my shoulders. I could feel tall at last. Never again would I think of the bully’s words; from then on they existed only as pixelated impressions in the peripheries of my mind. That was when I knew I was truly ready for the next lesson my teacher had to give me.

*****

For more unusual, contemplative flash fiction, check out my book Fragments of Perception. Available now in e-book and paperback worldwide.