Friday 28 October 2011

Friday Flash - Trick or Treat

I walk along the street towards the next house. Fake cobwebs drape across the porch, and several grinning pumpkins light my way up the path. Further down the street, giggling children run from house to house. They stop to compare candy collections on the sidewalk. I chuckle to myself, a deep rumble inside my hood.

I ring the doorbell. Moments later, an elderly woman with rollers in her hair comes to the door – Mrs Phelps, if memory serves. Horror crosses her face as she takes in the black cloak and scythe.

"Trick or treat!"

Mrs Phelps spots my candy bag, an upturned skull on a leather thong, and a glorious smile appears among the wrinkles of her face. She picks up the dish of candy beside the door and offers it to me. I reach out and dip my bony fingers into the bowl, selecting a miniature Mars bar. I can't resist Mars bars, and this is the one time of year I can get them.

"Happy Halloween, dear!"

"Thank you. Likewise, I'm sure." I dip my head in greeting since she can't see my face inside my hood.

I turn to leave. Before she closes the door, I hear her tell her husband how lifelike some of the costumes have been this year. A smile erupts on my hidden face.

I visit more houses, collecting candy from smiling grandmothers and truculent fathers. The old man in the rickety old house on Claymore Street can't afford candy so he gives me an apple instead. I make a mental note to postpone my next visit to him.

I reach Winchester Street and head for the first house. Two small children stand on the porch. The girl is dressed as Princess Fiona from Shrek and the boy is dressed as a werewolf. This house bears no Halloween decorations, and a couple watch TV in an upstairs room. They ignore the children ringing the doorbell.

I head up the path to tell the children to try another house. Before I reach them, the front door flies open and a woman stands framed in the doorway. Fury burns in her eyes. Ms Wakefield.

"Trick or-" begin the children.

"Go away! Every year it's the same, you all descend on the neighbourhood like locusts, demanding we hand over whatever you want or you'll play some kind of vicious prank! It’s nothing but begging, so no, I won’t give you candy! Now get off my porch!"

The little girl bursts into tears. The little boy stares at the woman, frozen halfway between leaving and staying.

"Oh stop your whining and piss off. Go and beg from someone else!"

She catches sight of me hidden in the shadows at the bottom of the path.

"You can f**k off as well! Aren't you a little old to be trick or treating, or do you just do it for the kids?"

She slams the door so hard one of her insipid plaques falls off the wall. The crash prompts a fresh wave of tears from the little girl.

The little boy leads her down the path. I hunker down and hold out my skull of sweets. They stop a few feet away, the girl hiding behind the boy. The boy stares at my skeletal hand. His name is Greg, but I forget his surname.

"I'm sorry she was so mean."

"She made Bethany cry," says Greg.

"I know, and that was horrible of her. Take a couple of my sweets, and head on home."

"Mom says we shouldn't take candy from strangers," says Greg.

"Mom is quite right but just think of this as the candy the nasty lady could have given you."

Greg still hesitates but Bethany darts forward. She grabs the apple and disappears behind the boy again. She mumbles something about not wanting to rob me of candy.

"Are you sure?" asks Greg.


Greg chooses the smallest piece of candy in the skull. They nod their thanks and run away down the street. I turn back to the house and stalk up the path. The moonlight glints on the blade of my scythe.

Looks like the lady of the house chose a trick after all.

Thursday 27 October 2011

The Five Year Plan

Indie author Kait Nolan was talking about Five Year Plans over on her blog the other day, and it got me thinking. You see, I've never been big on five year plans. I'm the type of person who'd go to an interview, and when asked where I saw myself in five years time, would say "I don't really mind as long as I enjoy what I'm doing." It sounds like I'm not ambitious, like I don't really care about my future, but I am and I do. I wouldn't be trying to carve out a career as a writer if I had no real interest in where I end up - nor would I be studying for a PhD in Film Studies with the eventual intention to be lecturing. But when it comes to long term goals, I'm far less specific. So long as I'm happy, or enjoying what I'm doing, or doing something that contributes towards my success in those fields about which I DO care, then I consider that to be successful.

Why am I so vague about something I should probably put some thought into? Well, this time five years ago, I was still a receptionist at an architectural practice in south London, I was single, and I was just pratting about writing the occasional short story for submission to magazines - and failing at it. I've come so far since then, but I don't think I would have seen myself where I am now if I'd thought about it back then. Would I have ended up somewhere different if I'd HAD a Five Year Plan? Most probably. Would I have an actual published book, and be studying for a PhD? Maybe, maybe not. Would I spend some of my weekends running around haunted buildings with my boyfriend, investigating the boundaries of the paranormal? I doubt it. Either way, that's where I am now, and I'm happy with it.

So do I have a Five Year Plan now? Yes and no. Yes because most of those five years will heavily revolve around my PhD, but no, because you never know what curveballs life will throw at you. I prefer to stay flexible, since what's right for me now might not be what's right for me in two or three years, let alone five. I think I'll stick to my current methodology - I'll set my goals, I'll work for the things I want, and I'll see how things go...

Stay tuned!

Wednesday 26 October 2011

[Review] Beginnings, Middles and Ends

At first glance, writing a book specifically about beginnings, middles and ends might seem a bit odd. After all, a story contains all three, so surely that's just a book about, well, books? Well yes, and no. Despite the fact I was familiar with the three act structure from my academic work in film studies, I hadn't really stopped to consider beginnings, middles and ends as separate entities in fiction until I read James Scott Bell's book, Plot & Structure (highly recommended, by the way). I wrote my own series on beginnings, middles and ends over on Fuel Your Writing, so I couldn't help but be curious about how a whole book on the subject might actually work.

Nancy Kress is no stranger to creative writing books, having also written Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities That Keep Readers Captivated and Characters, Emotions and Viewpoint. My edition of Beginnings, Middles and Ends was published in 1999 (although a newer version is available), and in some ways, the text has dated. The book places more emphasis on writing short stories that will be "mailed" to various magazines, while novels are intended to be submitted to agents. Still, don't let that put you off - after all, there's a lot to be said for submitting shorter works to magazines or journals (although most are now online) and despite what certain people say, agents can still be very useful people in your writing career. But I digress.

While at first it seems odd to focus on the three parts of a story separately, it's actually a very logical approach. After all, most writers struggle with one of the three. They may write stellar beginnings, but run out of steam, or they may write lacklustre material that is entirely redeemed by a spectacular ending. Personally, I find the beginning and ending exciting, but I worry about how to maintain pace in the middle. Considering the majority of the book seems to be given over to beginnings, I'd wager that's the area with which Kress herself has the most problems.

It is a very interesting book, and its particular emphasis on developing a through-line for the novel/story to keep you on track and on theme is a valuable one. The book also highlights the importance of coherence, and keeping each segment of your book closely aligned with those preceding and following, in order to prevent any of those annoying "What the hell is that?" moments. Kress uses a fictional example story involving a problem family to demonstrate ways in which the plot can be developed, and ways in which it probably shouldn't, as a way of showing writers how endings should grow organically out of beginnings. Each section is broken down into chapters aimed at specific problem areas, including exactly where to begin, how to get past a block when you get stuck, and how to nail that stellar ending. In addition, Kress provides exercises at the end of each chapter, aimed at getting you to work on the specific area of your work that you've just covered in the book.

My biggest problem with the book is that it does feel slightly dated, and the information in both Plot & Structure and the recent Story Engineering by Larry Brooks seems more useful. Perhaps the book would be more useful if you're very new to writing and you'd like things to be more clearly broken down, but if you've been writing for a while and you want to better investigate story structure, then either of the titles I've just mentioned will probably be better for you. Of course, if you're solely a short story writer, then I highly recommend Beginnings, Middles and Ends as both Plot & Structure and Story Engineering are more aimed at novelists. Even then, as a novelist, you may find something useful in the book...but try to borrow it from a library instead.

Three blunt pencils out of five

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Eighty Nine Launch Day

Today is Launch Day for the latest Literary Mix Tapes anthology, Eighty Nine. My story, Thirty Years in the Bathroom, is online now, but only for the next 24 hours.

This is the third LMT anthology I've been in, having also had stories appear in the first Deck the Halls collection in 2010, and the Nothing But Flowers anthology released earlier this year. The thinking behind Eighty Nine was to collect stories inspired by or based on songs released in 1989. Each author nominated a song, and titles were assigned following a random draw. I nominated Bon Jovi's Lay Your Hands On Me, which went to Adam Byatt, while I got 30 Years In The Bathroom by The Wonderstuff, originally suggested by Dan Powell.

As you can imagine, the song title doesn't immediately suggest many story possibilities. I had a few ideas involving someone literally spending thirty years in a bathroom but when I tried to set up a story structure using this plot, I found it nigh-on impossible to get the narrative framework to stand up. On the one occasion that I did, I realised the plot was too similar to that of Blast From The Past for it to work. Luckily a lot of swearing and lateral thinking ensued and I came up with my story, involving the Batman premiere, Greek mythology, and a mixture of Faust and Dorian Gray.

You can read it here until tomorrow, or you can buy a copy of the anthology here in the UK, or here in the US! We also have a Facebook event here, so get involved!

Monday 24 October 2011

Photo Prompt 56

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 56th prompt is Hermit Crab.

Hermit Crab

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!