Friday, 28 December 2012

#FridayFlash - Lost Child

They do say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and if Hemingway could get away with writing a story that's just six words long, then why not tell a flash using a picture and a single line of dialogue?

Thursday, 27 December 2012

2012 or 2013?

Everyone else appears to be doing reviews of 2012, and for a while, I did think about dissecting the year using various typical headings. Problem was, I couldn't remember what books I'd read this year (or what I'd read in 2011), and I couldn't remember all of the films I'd seen in 2012. Thinking back on it all, I simply depressed myself because this year has not been particularly great. I've had two break ups, countless other difficulties with interpersonal relationships, other needless hassle, and not a lot of success in the writing department - basically, I didn't have time to write as much as I'd have liked since I had other, more pressing, demands on my time. While yes, I celebrated the first anniversary of publication of The Guns of Retribution, and I did complete the first version of The Necromancer's Apprentice which is currently with the beta readers, I didn't really have time to do any more and that as rather depressed me. However, I did have a few stories appearing in various anthologies, and I've done well on the PhD front. I think the best part of the year was easily my trip to Venice in the summer, which inspired a scattering of Friday flashes (the photo is me in the Piazza San Marco in front of the Basilica, with the Campanile to the right).

So instead of looking back across the year that was, I'm going to look forward to the year that will be. I don't do resolutions, and haven't done so for a very long time, but I am going to set myself some goals instead - goals are things you would like to reach, while resolutions are things you will do, and unfortunately my temperament tends to skitter away from things I must do in favour of things I want to do, rendering the implementation of resolutions somewhat problematic. So in 2013, I intend to complete at least one more writing project next year, be it another novella or a full-length novel, as well as hopefully putting out another anthology of short stories. I've got plenty of ideas for novels so that shouldn't be an long as I manage to find the time! I've been outlining towards the end of this year so I've got plenty to start on when I've finished editing my Fowlis Westerby novel. Once I've got the structural outline in place I tend to find it easier to 'fill in the gaps', so to speak.

Away from writing fiction, I also intend to keep working on my digital art, as well as working hard towards my PhD. I've got two essays to plan and write for possible inclusion in anthologies, and with the literature review and historical context chapters out of the way, I'll be able to get my teeth into the main 'meat' of my thesis. I'm actually really looking forward to it, and I'm extremely lucky to have chosen such a wide-ranging set of topics, making the research a pleasure as opposed to a chore. I finish my teacher training course in May, which should free me up to devote my time to other pursuits. Whether that's blogging, writing, knitting, drawing or something else I haven't yet taken up as a hobby, I don't know yet, but it'll be lovely to have the time to choose!

All I will say in closing is thank you to anyone who has bought a copy of one of my books this year, because if people didn't buy them I'd give serious thought to just quitting this mad business altogether.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Redemption: A Christmas Story

I originally wrote this story as a response to a particular 'classic' Christmas movie, and it also appears on my website. See if you can guess which film inspired it...and merry Christmas!

* * *

Detective Carmichael stands with his back to me, staring out of the window.

“And you say that’s where he jumped? Right there?”

The detective points towards the bridge, and the churning black river below. For a second, I’m standing behind the rail again, a stiff breeze driving icy spray into my face. The water smells of winter and regret.

“Yep. Right over that rail. Tried to talk him outta it, but he just wouldn’t listen.”

“Yeah right. You’re hardly the charitable type, are you?”

Detective Carmichael leans against the wall beside the small stove. He flicks a wooden toothpick between his lips. It clicks against his yellow teeth. Of all the people who could have fished me out of the river, why did it have to be him?

“Believe it or not, I’m a nice guy!” I spread my hands wide and try a sheepish smile. Usually works on most people, but not him. His flinty eyes glitter in the shadows. I shiver under my blanket, only this time it’s not because I just took a midnight swim in the river.

“Clarence, I know they call you the Angel, but I think we both know that you’re no nice guy. Now George Bailey? He was a nice guy. My mother wouldn’t have her house if it weren't for him.” He pauses to lift the whistling kettle from the stove. “Now why don’t you make this easier on yourself and just tell me why you pushed him?”

“I didn’t, I’m tellin’ ya! I was going home and I saw him climb over the railing. Ain’t no way I’m gonna let some guy kill himself at Christmas. That just ain’t right. I tried to talk him down but he wouldn’t listen. Then he jumped.”

I sneeze. Detective Carmichael pours hot water into a waiting mug, and offers it to me. I wrap my hands around it, glad of the warmth. The detective puts the kettle down and fishes his leather-bound notebook out of his top pocket. He licks the tip of a stubby yellow pencil and scribbles down what I just said.

“Did he say why he was doing it? I mean, you’re saying that you tried to talk him down. He must have had some kind of reason. A guy doesn’t just throw himself into the river for nothing.”

“He kept sayin’ somethin’ about money. He’d lost it, and couldn’t find it nowhere, and he was in a lotta trouble. He said somethin’ about not wantin’ the business in the first damn place, he wanted to get out, get away from here. Kept sayin’ ol’ man Potter finally had his way.”

I shivered as I remembered the look on the poor guy’s face. Total despair mixed with innocence, like an angel who has a job to do but can’t fight human nature.

“I see. What did you actually say to him?”

“Just tried to get him to feel better, y’know? He said he wished he hadn’t been born. Now I know the guy, I know all the good stuff he’s done for this town. I tried remindin’ him of that. Told him about his brother, and how he wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for him. Harry couldn’t have shot down all those Germans if George hadn’t been born.” I pause to think. Talking down a suicidal man is a stressful business. “I tried to get him to think of his wife ‘n kids. He was one lucky guy, havin’ a nice family like that. Mary woulda done anythin’ for him and those kids.”

“OK, Clarence, you got a point. So maybe you didn’t push him,” says Detective Carmichael. He puts the notebook back in his pocket. We’ve gone ‘off the record’. “But I’m still surprised that you tried to help. There’s something you’re not telling me.”

“Well, the Man Upstairs wanted me to do somethin’ about it. He heard rumours things weren't good, and he asked me to check on him. The minute he told me it was George in trouble, I decided to help. Couldn’t let a nice guy like that throw himself in the river.”

“What has the Man Upstairs got to do with this? Why would a hood care about George Bailey?”

“He heard Potter might be involved, and you know the history between those two. But I just really, genuinely wanted to help.”


“Promise you won’t tell anyone else?”

Detective Carmichael moves his head. The light falls on his face. I try to ignore his twisted, shiny scars as he looks me up and down. Man, if those scars could talk, they’d have some hellish stories to tell. But, anyway. He nods.

“I was trying to earn my wings,” I mumble.

“Your what?” One eyebrow creeps halfway up his forehead. A puckered white line cuts through the hair.

“My wings. Look, way I see it, I’ve done some pretty bad shit in my time, and it’s obvious where I’ll be goin’ come Judgment Day. Never used to bother me, but now I got a wife and kid, I want a better life. I thought tryin’ to help might go some way to balancin’ stuff out.” I wriggle deeper into the blanket and look away. Doesn’t seem right telling someone like him something like that.

Detective Carmichael says nothing. He looks me up and down again, his face unreadable. That look in his eyes could just as easily be disgust as it could pity. Pulling up the collar of his coat, he walks over to the door.

“You know, Clarence, there’s a chance we can fish him out downstream. Maybe he’ll still be alive,” he says.

He opens the door and walks out into the damp night. The door swings closed behind him, and I watch him through the window until he disappears into the mist. I look back to the river. When I was up there, talking him down, I felt the same pull George Bailey must have felt. It’d be so easy. Just throw yourself in; the water will hold you, embrace you, make it all okay. It’s always cold all the year round, you won’t even feel anything. I’d be beyond the Man Upstairs, and all the associates. My wife might even get some insurance money, and my daughter could grow up without scum like me holding her back.

The wind throws a wave right up the bank. The water crashes into the window, breaking my train of thought. The cold water runs down the window in drops, like the world is crying. I think of Marsha and Stephanie, and how they’d cry without me. I break free of the river’s hold. I can’t do it. I’ve got other poor suckers to help. I might earn my wings yet.

* * *

The original image was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by user Heidas, but has been edited slightly by me.

Friday, 21 December 2012

#FridayFlash - They're Here

It's early Friday morning and folk everywhere are running around, panic buying like the world's gonna end. I guess in some parts of the world it's already late in the day so maybe it is gonna end. I can't stand the hustle, so I go to my usual bolt hole - the diner on Forth Street. It's a tacky little dive on the edge of town, all cracked red vinyl seats and streaky chrome fittings, but it's warm and the staff are nice. It's empty aside from a homeless guy warming himself by the heater, so I make for my favourite booth. Macy pours me a black coffee and fixes me a waffle with syrup.

"You ok, hon?" She's about fifty, with a bright red beehive and purple eyeshadow. Looks like some kind of retro cartoon character who never left the 1950s. She's like the kind of mom I wish I'd had, if mine hadn't been crazy.

"I guess."

"All this stuff gettin' to ya, huh?" She vaguely waves at the window and I watch a man run past carrying a small flatscreen TV. I've no idea what good he thinks that'll do him in the apocalypse but maybe he just wants to watch it all on the news.

"I just wanted to get away from these end of the world nuts. I've had this all my life, I don't need everyone coming out with it at the same time."

Macy raises an eyebrow and leans forward across the counter. I scoot across the booth and take up a seat opposite her. I tell her all about my mom's theory, about the aliens. She always said the world wasn't gonna end today, it was just that the world was gonna end as we knew it. She even reckoned that’s what the REM song was about. You learned to never ask what she meant, 'cause that's what got her started on about the aliens. Said she'd been abducted back in '73, and they didn't take her to a spaceship, said it was some kind of ancient ruin. Sounds like the kinda thing you'd see Indiana Jones running about in. Anyways, she'd get on her high horse and start saying the aliens had always been here, and the Mayans knew all about them. Hell, some of them probably WERE aliens.

I finish my story and drain the last of my coffee from the chipped mug. Macy gives me a funny look and leans closer, so close I can smell her lavender perfume. She waits until the homeless guy shuffles out.

"Your mom weren't wrong".


"The aliens ain't invading, hon - they never left. They're just coming out of hiding."

For the first time, I notice her eyes - yellow irises, flecked with red. That ain't normal. When she moves her sleeve rides up and I see the tattoos on her arm. Some kind of marking, looks like the kind of Inca art I saw on the Discovery channel once.

"So all this end of the world crap is real?"

"Oh yes. Well, not for me." Macy smiles that strange crooked smile of hers.

"I suppose you're one of 'em, huh?"

"I am. I already saw you clocked the tattoo. Got it when I was eighteen. Jeebus, that was over 1300 years ago. Bet you're wonderin' why I dress like this, huh?"

"I'm wonderin' a lot of things, Macy."

"I just like the style, I guess. Anyway, all this ain't just a new beginning for me, hon. It's the same for you."


"Your mom did meet us in 1973, only it weren't no abduction. She met your dad in 1972, and he was damned smitten by her. Took her to meet everyone back at the Prime Colony, only she couldn't take the truth and she went a bit crazy. After that, we scattered, and didn't try to start nothin' with the humans."

"So where does that leave me?"

"Don't worry, hon. Your dad'll come get you. It's time for you to go home."

“You’re sayin’ I’m an alien too?”

“Well half alien, hon. Guess that makes you legal.”

Macy winks and straightens up. She flicks the TV on and it's all over the news - total pandemonium. Looting, rioting, fires, everything. I head back to my booth, and eat my waffle. I try to feel something, some kind of panic, or fear, but somehow I can’t. I worry a bit about my mom but all I can think of is my dad. Humanity tears itself apart and I’m sat there wondering if I look like a guy I’ve never met – who isn’t even really a guy.

It’s a funny old world, ain’t it? And now it’s ending. Huh. Never saw that one coming.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Instagram - Yes or No?

A rather stunning sky over Jarrow

So Instagram, the photo sharing service that was bought by Facebook earlier in the year, have changed their privacy policy and terms of service. I actually read them yesterday, and found that apparently "Nothing has changed about your photos’ ownership or who can see them"...which appears to directly contradict point 1 of their Rights section, in which they state that "Instagram does not claim ownership of any Content that you post on or through the Service. Instead, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service". In point 2, they point out that "some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you"...yet in point 8 they say that "you agree that Instagram is not responsible for, and does not endorse, Content posted within the Service". So basically, Instagram are saying that they aren't responsible for your content, nor do they own it, but it's perfectly okay for them to let other people use your username and photos etc. in promotions without paying you.

The Leazes Park bandstand
I used to love Instagram, but since they were bought by Facebook, I haven't been impressed by some of their decisions. This one in particular makes me feel very uneasy. Theoretically, Newcastle City Council could pay Facebook to license photos I've taken around the city in their advertising - without me seeing a penny of it. By comparison, Google can't sell photos you upload through Picasa or Google+, and Flickr can only use the images you upload "solely for the purpose for which such content was submitted or made available". True, there don't appear to be any immediate plans to monetise the images currently available on Instagram but that doesn't mean that they won't.

It's bad enough having people using your content without crediting you (I've had people steal my photos and cover up my copyright with their own tat, as if that somehow nullifies the existence of the copyright) but to force the change through your terms of service? I suppose the question comes down to whether or not I'm prepared to put up with that possibility (bearing in mind no one might ever use my images) or whether I'm irritated enough to delete my account. After all, I put most of my images on Facebook and Twitter anyway, as well as Flickr, so would it really matter if I didn't use Instagram? I can achieve all of its filter effects through Photoshop so it's not like it's really going to bother me if I'm sharing photos through Twitter instead.

My Halloween 'Lady Beetlejuice' costume
Thing is, there are a lot of photos of me on Instagram - do I really want someone using those without my express permission? There was an episode of Friends years ago in which Joey's photo was used on an advert about VD, and it put off countless women as they assumed that meant he had one form or other of it. I don't want to get into the situation where someone I don't even know decides to use a photo of me, and the association is a negative or embarrassing one. I'm quite happy to embarrass myself or project myself badly but I don't want someone else to do it for me. I wouldn't mind leaving up photos of cakes I've made, or daft signs I've found, but there doesn't seem to be any way of deleting individual photos, so I can't even alter the way I use the service by removing those images that I wouldn't want them to make available.

So question I stay or do I go?

Monday, 17 December 2012

Culture Cuts

Newcastle's Laing Art Gallery

I've been annoyed for quite some time about the plummeting status of culture and the arts in the UK, and the growing clamour for better funding for sport following the success of the Olympics has further demonstrated the divide between those who think the arts are important, and those who don't. It's become particular apparent in my hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne, where the City Council, in a glorious fit of short-sightedness, have announced their intention to slash the entire culture budget of £2.5 million due to a reduction in funds from central government. I'm well aware that we're living in times of austerity and that cuts must be made across the board, but unfortunately it could be argued that the City Council, currently held by Labour, are using the budget cuts as a political tool. They can cut whatever they see as being unnecessary, and then blame the fiscal ineptitude of the Coalition government for the need to make cuts in the first place. Back in 2008, Newcastle entered their bid to be crowned European Capital of Culture. Liverpool ended up winning, but how on earth could we possibly enter such a competition again, with no culture to speak of? The Council claim that their contributions towards these institutions are the smallest portion of each institution's funding, and that removal of Council support would not result in closure, but that sounds like very cold comfort indeed.

For those of you who have never visited Newcastle, the city isn't all drunken nights out and women wearing no coats in the depths of winter. The city centre boasts two museums, two major art galleries, three theatre spaces, an independent cinema with links to the BFI, and a handful of small comedy venues. The north east as a whole has produced the likes of Sir Ridley Scott, Neil Marshall, Sting, John Martin, Thomas Bewick, and Terry Deary. Charles Dickens enjoyed visiting the city and even J. R. R. Tolkien had links with the area. Surely this qualifies as a rich cultural heritage that is both worthy of preservation and celebration?

Some time ago, the City Council also announced their intention to close ten public libraries around the city - libraries which, it must be remembered, grant access to knowledge to those who perhaps cannot afford to buy piles of books. The Council have argued that no one will live more than 1.5 miles from their nearest library, but for some, even this distance could be too great, making library visits difficult, if not impossible. Besides, libraries do not simply offer books, they also allow users to enjoy IT facilities and internet access. Not everyone has both of these at home, and in a time of increasing digitisation of such things as job applications, banking and even paying your TV license, the only way some people can do these is to use their local library. How can we get people back into work if they can't get online to send a CV? The two sets of budget cuts go hand in hand - after all, this decimation of the cultural budget would affect such institutions as the Great North Museum. Imagine this scenario - a class of primary school pupils visit the museum, and enjoy one of the shows in the planetarium. Several of the pupils express a particular interest in astronomy, their parents locate relevant books in their local libraries, and the seeds are sown for the next generation of Patrick Moores and Brian Coxs. Without the libraries or the museum, how can we expose children to future career paths? Instead, we bombard them with reality TV shows and they grow up wanting to be pop stars or models.

Thankfully I'm not the only one who finds these proposed cuts utterly abhorrent. Northern musical heavyweights Bryan Ferry, Sting, Mark Knopfler and Neil Tennant have penned a letter to the Council in The Guardian, pointing out that without funding to culture and the arts, both avenues become the preserve of the wealthy, and opportunities are denied to the next generation - the next generation which is currently being told it MUST go into sport. The arts and culture provide employment prospects, and things like the film industry even raise the prospect of bringing investment into an area (e.g. Glasgow doubling as Philadelphia, for World War Z).

I leave you with one final thought. Truly one of the most outstanding contributions to the Olympics was the ambitious opening ceremony by Danny Boyle. Without cultural funding, how can we possibly support the next generation of filmmakers, artists, writers, dancers, actors and photographers, those people who will document our culture and society, preserving it for those who will come later?

Friday, 14 December 2012

#FridayFlash - Sand and Snow

Outside in the cold, bells toll around the city to ring in the special day. Delicate flakes of snow dance and whirl through the frozen air in their own celebration ballet. Strangers exchange seasonal greetings in the street, warm with the glow of red wine and mince pies.

Inside the museum, whispers echo around empty halls, and ancient words entwine with plaster and glass. Syllables slide through cracked stone; the sarcophagus fills with spells not heard in three thousand years. Dessicated flesh stirs inside flaking wrappings and sparks flare within empty sockets. Skeletal hands press against wood; the coffin lid clatters to the floor. The owner of the voice steps forward to push aside the stone slab.

A pale hand grips the gnarled ancient fingers and helps the figure clamber to its feet. Recognition flickers in the eyes of the mummy princess. Many centuries have passed since she last laid eyes on the man before her. Her heart would skip a beat if it had not been replaced by a clay amulet.

The arcane priest leads her across the parquet floor of the Egyptian Gallery, one hesitant shuffling step at a time. He places a cold finger to his lips, calling for quiet. The beam of a torch swings through the doorway as the night watchmen performs his rounds. He does not notice the wizened mummy princess and her curious pale companion in the shadows.

They leave their hiding place and make their way through the museum. The sparks in the mummy's eyes grow brighter as she takes in the wealth of history, all younger than her but older than the museum, as they tread through the empty halls. They reach the entrance atrium, and the priest waves his hand. The glass doors swing open, and he leads his princess outside.

Snow lies several feet thick, heaped against the gutter, blown aside to clear the road. The black trees of the avenue wear their wintry white coats with pride, limbs extended to the heavens in silent thanks for the seasonal bounty. The mummy princess gawps, her jaw hung loose by withered tendons. The snow reminds her of the sand of her youth, though she does not remember white sand that glitters beneath light. She marvels at the lamp posts with their artificial suns.

The priest leads his ancient prize into the street. Snowflakes drift toward them, settling on yellowed wrappings and worn cloak alike. The princess spots patterns traced in the frost on the windows. Her face labours but produces a smile, and the sparks in her eyes glow white with pleasure. The priest returns the smile, and their hands find each other in the cold.

They stand watching the snow fall as the bells ring out for Christmas Day.

Friday, 7 December 2012

#FridayFlash - Mr Magpie

Anna peered through the camera’s viewfinder. She centred the bandstand in the frame and adjusted the aperture to lengthen the depth of the field.


Anna pressed the preview button on the camera. Her photo appeared on the screen. She’d need to alter the contrast but otherwise it was a good capture. Frost turned the paving white, and frozen cobwebs hung from the bandstand’s wrought iron. She smiled. Others might pass the deserted bandstand in the quiet park and not notice it – to her, it was another beautiful view.

She turned to frame a shot of the path leading down to the lake. Geese slithered across the ice, their webbed feet ill-suited to the winter conditions.

A flutter of black and white passed before her lens. She lowered the camera to see a magpie perched on a stump. It cocked its head on one side and stared at her.

“Hello, Mr Magpie,” she called. “Would you pose for me?”

The magpie moved, leaning forwards with its wings outstretched, a parody of the carved eagles behind the bandstand. Anna switched her camera to rapid capture and fired off a string of photos. She paused to review the photos, pleased with the contrast of the black and white feathers and frosted grass.

“Thank you, they look–”

Anna looked up and stopped as the magpie took to the air. She watched its flight over the hedges, and into the knot of trees beyond. Anna didn’t venture into the woods, preferring the wider vista of the open slope down to the lake. Still, she hadn’t expected to take photos of birds, and the magpie shots were the best she’d taken today. Perhaps she’d find something better among the trees.

Anna made her way along the path. The trees closed over the trail, their leafless branches forming an arch of icy wood. Anna snapped photos of frost-encrusted flowers too stubborn to make way for winter, and she captured an image of a squirrel burying nuts at the foot of an oak.

The path led into a clearing, surrounded by evergreens. A carpet of fallen leaves covered the ground, and tree stumps thrust out of the autumnal sea like the rocks in the bay. Anna froze, realising she was not alone. A young man sat on one of the stumps. Flowing black hair streaked with white and petrol blue tumbled down his back, and he stared at her with glittering eyes so dark they looked black. He wore a ragged suit of black velvet, with a flowing white shirt beneath it. He doffed his battered top hat.

“Good morning, Mistress Photographer.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone was here,” said Anna.

“That’s quite alright, my dear. How could you have known? You are not psychic.” A smirk hovered around his pale lips.

“No, I’m not.” Anna frowned.

“I, on the other hand, am very much psychic. I can tell what you’re thinking right now, as it happens.”

Anna raised one eyebrow and said nothing.

“You were searching for a magpie.”

“Not exactly. I saw it fly over here and I thought I’d come and explore.”

“You’re always searching, Anna. Always trying to find something. If only you knew what you were looking for!”

Anna started at the mention of her name, and took a step backwards. The young man’s smirk erupted into a full smile. Without meaning to, she found herself returning the smile. He was very strange, but rather good-looking, in a haughty, emaciated sort of way. Anna couldn’t remember the last time a boy had even looked at her, let alone spoken to her.

“You should stop looking, Anna. You will never find the treasure you seek.”

“How do you know my name?”

“I told you, I am psychic. But you won’t find the treasure because you are the treasure. Do you understand?”

Anna shook her head. The young man laughed and leapt to his feet. Anna could see white socks through the holes in his patchwork boots. He seized her hand and pressed it to his lips.

“Have a care, young Anna. You are the treasure!”

A cloud passed before the sun, casting long shadows across the clearing. Anna felt the young man release her hand, and when the sun returned, he was gone. She stood alone in the clearing. She looked at her hand, expecting to see some sort of mark from the strange young man’s lips. Her fingers felt lighter than usual, and she realised her ring was missing. It was only a fake diamante ring from a stall at the market, but she liked the way it sparkled on her middle finger. Now it was gone.

What a bastard, he must have taken it! At least it only cost a couple of quid.

Anna turned to leave the clearing when she noticed something on the tree stump. A long black feather, coloured with splashes of petrol blue. She turned it over in her hand, enjoying play of light across the blue, like oil on water. On impulse, she pushed it into her hair, and left the clearing.

Anna headed towards the Wilson Street exit, determined to head home and edit her photos. She was so preoccupied that she didn’t notice the young man coming the other way until she collided with him.

“Hey, sorry, are you okay?” The young man touched her shoulder. She looked up into a familiar face – it was Ben, from the photographic society.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“You’re Anna, right?”

Anna nodded.

“Were you taking photos for our latest assignment?”

Anna nodded again, too amazed to speak.

“I was just cutting through the park to go get a coffee. You want to come with me? We can talk about it.”

Anna nodded, adding a smile to her answer. Ben grinned, and they headed back through the park towards town. As he chattered away about his latest camera purchase, Anna touched the feather in her hair and smiled.

I am the treasure.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Published in the Deck the Halls anthology

I'm rather pleased to announce that I have a story in yet another anthology! In addition to my story, A Girl's Best Friend, in Best of Friday Flash: Volume Two, and Anonymous in the Penny Dreadfuls Halloween Special, I now have Apprentices to Time in Deck the Halls: Festive Tales of Fear and Cheer.

The story appeared online in its original form a couple of years ago in answer to a prompt - Emergent Publishing were putting together a collection of stories, each of which took a line from Deck the Halls as a story prompt. My line was 'Fast away the old year passes' and I chose to write a story about New Year. It was also the first time I introduced my female Death character, who you might remember from some of my Friday Flashes (particularly New Year's Dance, about my Captain Scarlight character). She's become a bit of a favourite of mine, and it's rather awesome to be able to share her story again, albeit revised and updated!

The blurb on the Emergent website runs thus;

DECK THE HALLS traverses the joy and jeopardy of the festive season, from Yule to Mōdraniht, Summer Solstice to Years’ End. The stories journey through consternations and celebrations, past, present and future, which might be or never were.

Along the way you’ll meet troll hunters, consumer dissidents, corset-bound adventurers, a joint-toking spirit, big-hearted gangbangers, an outcast hybrid spaceship, petrol-toting politicians, mythical swingers and a boy who unwittingly controls the weather.

Heart-warming and horrifying, the collection is a merry measure of cross-genre, short fiction subverting traditional notions of the holiday season.

It's available from the Emergent Store as a PDF, mobi or epub file, and you can order a good old-fashioned paperback too. Go on, get yourself an early Christmas present...

Friday, 30 November 2012

#FridayFlash - A Little Flutter

Ever since I was a kid, I was always that idiot shouting "I bet you anything that..." Couldn't start a sentence without it. The missus used to watch all the soaps, and I was forever shouting bets about what characters would do next. Used to drive her mad. She'd stick a tenner in my hand and send me down William Hill, just to get some peace.

So anyway. It's a Tuesday afternoon, and I've been sent home from work. Quiet day, like, nothing else to do. Boss figured he'd save himself some money. I reckon I'll give Susan some peace, so I go off down the bookies. I'm £30 down after an hour but it's early yet so I'm not leaving. Reckon I'll win it back, you know? Anyway. I've just put a tenner on Buford's Chase and he's running well. Like an idiot, I start shouting, "I bet he wins!"

Damn thing loses so I start shouting that I bet the race was fixed, always "I bet this" and "I bet that". One of the girls behind the counter brings me a cuppa and asks me to pipe down, so I do. For a while. Eventually I start mumbling to myself, I bet I could win back my £40. I reckon it'll be easy, if only I pick the right horse. For a second I think about the one armed bandits but I know they're fixed.

So anyway. I'm looking through the listings for the next race. I don't have a system, not really, and by this point I'm just picking names I like. This guy comes up to me, so quiet I don't hear him until he clears his throat. He's dressed a bit funny, in a three piece suit and carrying a cane, but you get all sorts down the bookies, so I think nothing of it. He leans over and says we should make things interesting. I tell him I'm just trying to win back my £40, and hope he'll go away. He gives this big smile, all white teeth like those insurance people on the telly. Says that if I bet on Faust's Hubris and it wins, he'll give me £10,000. If it loses, this geezer gets my soul. I reckon he's a nutjob but I look up the horse, and the odds are good so I fling in a bet. Only a tenner, mind. Susan'll kill me if I lose any more than £50. That'd be worse than losing my soul - my missus has a right mouth on her when she gets riled up.

Anyway, the horse runs well, and I reckon I might be close to winning. I don't think the crazy will pay out £10,000 but the odds are 4 to 1, so I'll at least win £50. I can go home and Susan'll never know. Faust's Hubris is out in front, but the stupid thing falls in the last furlong. I'm halfway through shouting "I bet the race is fixed" when the guy puts a hand on my arm. His fingers feel red hot but I can't pull away. He's got me firm. Next thing I know, the bookies has gone and we're standing in a huge cave. A lake of lava takes up the middle, and I almost faint when I see people swimming in it. They leave trails of fire in their wake and they're screaming in agony but they just keep going. I try to run away but no matter how far or fast I run, I never get anyway. Just keep running on the spot like those joggers at the traffic lights.

I don't know how long I've been here but I watch the swimmers all day long. Every hour, and I know it's an hour because I counted the seconds once, this horned thing comes by and forces me to bet on one. No matter which one I bet on, it loses. Nothing happens to me, I don't lose any money 'cause there's none to bet with, but the frustration is killing me. I've tried everything - systems, patterns, all sorts, but I always lose.

I've never seen the man in the suit again, but I think about him from time to time. I sometimes think back to that day in the bookies, and the more I think about it, the more I could swear I saw him flick his wrist just before Faust's Hubris fell down.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Good Grammar Kills No One

I couldn't help but share this infographic, courtesy of Copyblogger...

15 Grammar Goofs That Make You Look Silly
Like this infographic? Get more content marketing tips from Copyblogger.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Joy of Reading

I wrote a post over on Write Anything about the joy of reading and I wanted to expand a little on my points and personalise my words, in part to contextualise them and also to explain where I'm coming from.

In the post, I say that it's vital that writers read in their genre in order to know its conventions, and to ensure their work avoids falling into the 'parody' trap. For example, I can always tell when someone has written a steampunk story without having read any steampunk because they include the major stylistic elements, but without any of the 'punch' that puts the punk into the genre's name. Steampunk is more than just brass and cogs. If you read enough of the genre, you'll know what to include - and what to leave out. You'll also know what's been done before.

I also say that it's important that writers familiarise themselves with how other writers use language, but in essence, it's important that writers understand how to string words together. I've read a wide variety of work from a range of periods, genres and writers and I like to think it's influenced the way that I use language. A lot of novice writers write in the way that they speak, but it's important to

Yet there's more to it than that. Reading should be enjoyable. If reading a book feels like a real chore, then ditch the book. Life is too short and there are too many books in the world to waste your time reading crap. I can honestly say that ever since I got my Kindle, I've definitely been reading a lot more. I've divided my reading time between the free classics such as Phantom of the Opera or Jane Eyre (which I'm currently reading), and the books I've bought that are written by my writer friends. I read those texts related to my PhD while commuting, but when I want to get some reading done before bed, out comes the Kindle.

A lot of people say, somewhat piously I think, that they'll never give up real books, usually quoting something about the smell/feel of a physical book, but as far as I'm concerned, a book is a book, regardless of the medium. I love the smell of physical books as much as the next person, and I'd happily live in Barter Books in Alnwick, but my Kindle means I can carry many books in my bag, instead of one, and it's a lot lighter than most paperbacks. OK so a book will never run out of battery and it's not the end of the world if a book gets wet, but having my Kindle has really altered how much, when, and where I read.

Plus it looks awesome in its Frankenstein case.

Friday, 23 November 2012

#FridayFlash - The Dead Do Listen

“I can’t believe you made me do a tour of a catacomb. It’s morbid. No, it’s sick, that’s what it is.” Celia stepped over a small puddle on the cobbled floor. Her foot skidded on the thin layer of moss spreading across the stones.

“Shut up, it’s interesting,” replied Kaye. She hurried to catch up with the small group further down the corridor.

Four thick shelves ran the length of both walls; each held a row of coffins in various states of disrepair. Iron grates or concrete slabs covered some of the loculi. Celia shuddered to think what lay inside the makeshift tombs.

The guide stopped beside an iron grate on the second shelf down. Beyond it lay a narrow coffin. Rot had chewed through the outer oak shell, leaving the lead lining exposed at the end nearest the bars. An illegible plaque hung above the lock.

“This here is the final resting place of Lord Theodore Mountrose. He was a right nasty bugger, according to the gossip of the day.” The guide rapped on the rusty iron grate.

“Really? What did he do?” asked the woman nearest the guide.

“What didn’t he do! He came from a very wealthy family, and was the youngest of four. Some say he was spoiled by his mother, who refused to acknowledge anything he did,” replied the guide. “He fathered his first bastard aged fourteen, with one of the house’s scullery maids. Six months later, she and the child were found dead, drowned in the lake behind Mountrose Hall.”

“Did he kill them?” asked Kaye. Celia elbowed her; it was bad enough she’d had to come on this tour, she didn’t want Kaye drawing attention to them.

“The locals certainly believe he did. By the time the maid died, two more of his father’s maids were in the family way. Both of them died before they could even give birth.”

“What happened to them?” asked a tall bald man. He clutched a dog-eared map of the cemetery.

“One of them jumped off the roof of the house, the other one mysteriously tripped and fell onto a pitchfork. After those scandals, he just got worse. He went from school to school, causing trouble wherever he went. He tried to force his older sister into an incestuous relationship, and she ended up poisoning herself. And-”

A loud knocking interrupted the guide. Soft at first, the gentle rap became an impatient thump. The group looked around the corridor, trying to locate the source of the noise. The guide started back towards the central tunnel. She called to the catacomb warden. Only Celia stared at the coffin behind the grate, her mouth agape.

“Excuse me, you out there! Excuse me! I really do beg to differ!”

The lead lining muffled the voice, but there was no escaping the fact that Lord Mountrose wanted to set the record straight.

* * *

The Dead Do Listen was originally published by Everyday Weirdness in June 2010, and appears in my short story collection, Checkmate & Other Stories. It collects fifteen of the stories I had published between July 2008 and June 2010. You can find it for 99c at Amazon US and Smashwords, or for 77p at Amazon UK.

Monday, 19 November 2012

[Guest Post] Stepping clear of a black hole

If you want to get published, and you don't want to put out your work yourself, then you really have no option but to query agents, or small publishing presses, to find the one that suits you. It can be a nightmare process, and there have been rumblings online about discontent within a particular independent press who doesn't have the money to pay author royalties. I've asked the very awesome Nerine Dorman to give some advice on what to do - and, more importantly, what not to do, when sending out your work into the big bad world of publishing...

* * *

So, you’re treading the submissions mill, looking for that literary agent or publisher of your dreams are you? Working your way through or a following up on names you found at the forums?

Yes, it’s a disheartening process. If an agent or a publisher even bothers to get back to your query, (less than half most of the time) there’s a fair chance you’ll receive a polite form rejection of “Dear Mary Jane, we thank you for your query, but…”

That wonderful word: BUT. It doesn’t get any easier the longer you’ve been in this game and yes, we know this isn’t a personal but, blah blah blah, face it, sweetie, are you really the industry’s next EL James or Ms Meyer? What agents and publishers look for is highly subjective. There’s no getting around that. That’s why you need to query widely.

Often, when an agent or a publisher does come back to you with a “Dear Mary Jane, we are delighted to inform you…” it’s easy to rush into signing away all your rights without thinking, and end up taking the short end of the stick at the end of the day.

This post is beyond the scope to give exhaustive details of all that can go wrong. (Just go check out as a basic picture of all the horrible pitfalls.) But I am going to give you two very important pieces of advice most new authors ignore. 1) DON’T RUSH INTO SIGNING ANYTHING. 2) DO YOUR BACKGROUND CHECKS BEFORE YOU QUERY.

And, in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t listen to this advice either when I was first starting out. Luckily the agent that I’d briefly had (who wasn’t right for me, BTW) let me down nicely. We’d really been wasting each other’s time. Here’s a mantra: No agent is better than a bad agent (paste a little post-it note somewhere on your desk for that one.)

Before we got a wee bit distracted, let’s get back to those two aforementioned pieces of advice which should be branded onto your left and right hands. That way you can see the words when you type. Actually, even better, do your background checks BEFORE you even get to the point where you’re going to have to sign anything. Look at it this way, if you’re picking an agent or a publisher to query, it’s kinda like getting into a relationship with another person. You don’t want to entrust your baby to a remorseless gun-wielding gangster, do you?

Nope, didn’t think so. So the process of querying can look something like this:

1) Make a list of agents/publishers;
2) Go read each agent/publisher’s submission guidelines. Are they open for submissions? What genres are they looking for? Who are their clients? When was their most recent sale/release?

If an agent/publisher doesn’t have any recent activity, it’s a reason to be suspicious (sure, sometimes they’re tardy and they don’t update their sites, but rather be safe than sorry). That’s when I go to two websites. Preditors and Editors might not always be up to date, but there’s still loads of information there. Go check up your chosen agent/publisher. Then, run a search on the Absolute Write forums. Don’t see what you’re looking for? Sign up and start a thread. See what sort of answers you can turn up. Everyone who is anyone in the publishing industry pretty much hangs out there from time to time.

Still don’t know anything? Proceed with caution, and if said agent/publisher seems too good to be true, they probably are. Another golden rule: If anyone asks for money upfront, RUN AWAY AS FAR AND FAST AS YOU CAN. Just don’t go down that road. A reputable agent/publisher will never charge you money for services like reading your manuscript, or editing it, for that matter.

Lastly, one of the best things you can do is make friends with other authors. This will happen in places like Absolute Write. Find out about authors’ good experiences and their bad, especially in the chosen genre that you’re writing. They’ll be able to tell you how royalty payments work, which publishers are good about communicating with their authors, which aren’t.

The hallmarks of a good publisher is a company that will provide you with value-added services. Nowadays it’s not career suicide if you decide to self-publish. Maybe your book is hard to classify, or you might already have a niche you can market to. Just remember, without a publisher, there’s a lot of stuff you’re going to have to do yourself (like cover art, editing and formatting).

So, there are loads of publishers you can still approach that don’t require you to have a literary agent. Check out for potential markets. Remember to do your background checks.

The publishing industry is changing at a rapid rate nowadays. It pays, therefore, to keep up to date with news. Follow agents and the editors of your favourite imprints on Twitter or subscribe to their blogs or newsletters. Keep yourself informed, so that the choices you make aren’t harebrained. You’ve spent ages polishing that manuscript. You really want your novel to be the absolute best when it eventually gets released into the world.

Bio: Nerine Dorman is a South African editor and (mostly) dark fantasy author. She is the editor of the annual Bloody Parchment short story competition and anthology (eKhaya/Random House Struik), among other projects. Authors are welcome to query her for her editing rates at

Friday, 16 November 2012

#FridayFlash - Shallow

Candles burn low on the table, the remains of dinner still clinging to the plates. Music plays in the background, some arty jazz rubbish I don't recognise. We occupy the sofa, all arms and legs. She tucks a strand of long green hair behind her ear, leans in and gives that knowing smile.

"I'll just slip into something more comfortable."

Eight words later, she's decked out in a scrap of black satin and lace, ink on show in the few places it's not covered by Agent Provocateur's finest. She was a good find at the club, one of my best yet. Hardy's doesn't seem her kind of place but I'm not going to question it when she's sat on my lap.

Three months on, we're sat on the sofa. She's telling me about her day, only I'm not really listening. I'm thinking about that slip of a negligee, wondering when she'll get it out again. She tries to get my attention, but I'm too busy ignoring her new black bob. She tries to tell me she's getting a promotion. I smile but I don't mean it. I suppose this promotion means more business suits and sensible haircuts.

She shifts position again, tugging at the waistband of her skirt. It's grey and sexless, but she tells me it's designer. Some Italian guy whose name I can't pronounce. A white blouse covers most of her tattoos, and delicate silver studs replace the hoops and spikes in her ears, now hidden by that awful hairdo. She leans toward me.

"I'll just slip into something more comfortable."

My heart leaps to think of the black negligee and I settle myself on the sofa. She comes back downstairs in a faded sweatshirt and mismatching pyjama bottoms. I take one look at the fluffy slippers and I forget why I'm there. She goes into the kitchen to put the kettle on and I take the opportunity to leave. I won't be back.

I think I might stop in at Hardy's on the way home.

Friday, 9 November 2012

#FridayFlash - Lest We Forget

This flash was originally posted for Remembrance Sunday in 2010 and I couldn't think of any better way to honour the day this year than to re-post a story of which I could not be more proud. Enjoy, and rest in peace to all those who gave their lives.

* * *

Walter Graves huddles at the back of the dug-out. He fumbles with the pages of his book, unable to grasp the paper through his mittens. He nibbles a square of chocolate in consolation. The last couple of months have taught Walter to appreciate these snatched moments of quiet before the next onslaught begins.

“Captain! Captain! Oh, you ‘ave to come ‘n see this!” says Freddy Hamilton. He bounces up and down at the entrance to the dug-out.

“What is it?” asks Walter.

“No, no, you ‘ave to see it!”

Walter sighs, and slips a photo of his hometown into his book. He does not want to lose his place. Walter hopes the war will be over soon; he did not bring another book and he is almost finished this one. Walter’s fiancé, Gwyneth, may send him another. He must remember to write to her. He would have written sooner but shattered nerves do not lend themselves to correspondence.

Walter’s boots sink into the thick mud of the trench as he steps outside. He cannot work out why the mud in the trench refuses to freeze like the mud of No-Man’s Land. His grimace turns to shock when Freddy heads up the ladder to the parapet.

“Are you insane, man? Do you have a death wish?” cries Walter. He tries to grab Freddy’s foot, to pull him to the safety of the cold, filthy trench.

“No, it’s alright, sir! Come ‘ave a look!”

Freddy clambers over the parapet and stands up. Walter’s shock subsides when he realises he cannot hear gunfire. No shells burst overhead. The machine guns keep their staccato laughter to themselves. Christmas carols and jovial banter drift on the freezing air.

“Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht! Alles schläft; einsam wacht...”

“What the deuce is going on?” asks Walter.

“You need to come ‘n see, sir!” says Freddy. He mimes a man climbing upwards, determined that his captain should join him.

Walter hauls himself up the ladder, his mittens snagging on stray splinters. He gazes across No Man’s Land in disbelief. A line of Christmas trees marks the parapet of the German trench. Four of his men stand nearby, swapping rations with the enemy. To his left, a handful of Germans are smoking with two of his corporals.

“By Jove, they were right,” says Walter.

“What do you mean, sir?” asks Freddy.

“Well, they did say it would be over by Christmas!”

Walter watches a group of privates from both sides follow the stretcher-bearers across the desolate plain. They carry the wounded or dead. The barbed wire entanglements are mercifully free of twitching bodies. Walter sighs. Yesterday saw heavy losses on both sides.

A short distance away, a football match is in full swing. Owen Peterson stands between two cloth caps that form the goal. Young Jack Benson tries to kick the ball towards Dougie Birstall but his foot catches on a frozen clump of Ypres soil. The ball skitters away, and is intercepted by a German player. He passes it to another private.

“Howay, Jackie man, divvn’t pass to Fritz!” shouts Dougie. The German offers Dougie a sheepish grin and runs after his teammate.

“Merry Christmas, sir,” says Freddy. He holds out his hand toward his captain.

“Merry Christmas to you too, Freddy. I wish you many of them,” says Walter. He shakes Freddy’s hand.

They stand and watch the football match. Walter smiles. He could almost be standing at the edge of the village green, watching the local boys play the team from the colliery. Walter’s smile fades. Those boys came to the frozen fields of Flanders with him. Only four have made it this far.

The match ends in a draw, although it leads to a heated debate over the final score. The men call it even and enjoy a drink in a last act of defiance towards the generals.

Tonight will be the last silent night they ever enjoy. Tomorrow, the machine guns will begin again.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

#GuestPost - Writing a Series

A couple of weeks back I posted my review of Blood Skies by Steven Montano. I'm all about letting other authors use my blog to talk about their craft, and given Steven's a whizz at writing a series, I thought I'd ask him to write about the challenges of writing a series! Over to you, Steven...

* * *

Regardless of what some might say, writing a novel is hard.  I mean really hard.  And even if you can manage it, then you have to rewrite it, which is an entirely different beast.   Then you have to market your book, which is probably the most challenging part for self-published authors.

Now, imagine repeating that process – writing, editing, marketing – nine times in a row.  Welcome to writing your series.

There are challenges to writing a fantasy/sci-fi series above and beyond those inherent to writing a single novel.  I’ll do my best to elucidate those challenges for you right now.  (Note: I had to look up the word “elucidate” to make sure I was using it properly.)

Plot: Coming up with a good plot is difficult enough for one book, but coming up with a plot for a 10-book series (or a trilogy, or a 20-book series, or whatever) can be extremely daunting.  Depending on the style of series you intend to write you might have to create a very specific outline of where you want things to go, especially if your series is part of a continuous story (as opposed to something more serialized).  What works for me (an admitted “pantser” who still understands the quality of a good outline) is to have a general idea of what’s going to happen in the series, but not to get locked down with too many specifics.  Even the most hardcore plotter/outliner can change her mind, and you need to leave yourself some flexibility.

When I first sat down to plot out the original 6-book arc for the Blood Skies series, I did so with fairly broad strokes.  I knew roughly where each book would end and where the next would begin, but aside from some top-level plot details I left most of the specifics wide open.  So, for example, while I knew where Cross would be at the end of Books 3 and 4, I didn’t necessarily know how he was going to get there until I actually wrote the novels.

So long as you have even a general outline for your series you should never be lacking for a plot for any individual book.  Keep in mind that most people prefer each novel in a series to be as self-contained as possible.  This isn’t always easy, of course, and it’s pretty much expected that any given installment will end with some unanswered questions, if not with a total cliffhanger.  How you manage these transitions between novels is a matter of personal preference, and a question of how much you want your readers to hate you. ;D

Character Invincibility:  If your novel centers around a single protagonist, your readers will quickly figure out that nothing is going to happen to him/her, which might reduce tension and make the proceedings kind of dull.  There are a few ways you can go about keeping your audience on edge regarding to the fate of your main character:

1) Kill him.  The best medicine for some series is to not provide the feeling of safety that lets your readers get complacent in the first place.  Establish a protagonist, and then take him out.  Keeps everyone on their toes.

2) Direct the threat of danger more at your supporting characters rather than the character himself.  The tension then becomes on who will or will not become a “redshirt”.

3) Transform your character in some way.  My main character in the Blood Skies series, Eric Cross, has undergone several transmogrifications, and my readers have asked me a) how I could be so cruel, and b) what terrible thing I’m going to do to the poor guy next.  The suspense becomes more about “what will happen to him next?” rather than “will he live?”

4) Just don’t worry about it.  Some readers enjoy the comfort of knowing their hero is going to make it through the next scrape no matter how much the odds are stacked against him.  That’s part of what keeps them coming back for more.

Continuity:  Continuity refers to all of the little details in your series, from a character’s eye and hair color to street names to the way things work in your fantastic world.  I’ve read about some people who keep a “bible” about their novels, a notebook or journal where they literally jot down character notes, locations, subplots, etc.  This, I think, is a terrific idea.  (And perhaps something I should actually do…)

An author has to be careful to maintain continuity in regards to both character (vital statistics, scars, affectations, etc.) and setting (geographical details, chronology, what a country’s flag looks like, what the population is, etc.).  This is tough to do with even one novel…maintaining it throughout a series can be like holding a freight train together with duct tape.

But details like this are IMPORTANT!  They enhance the realism of even the most preposterous setting.  Maintaining continuity is especially important in fantasy and science-fiction, where different sets of rules apply than those in the so-called “real world”.  If you invent a system of magic, a brand new race, or different laws of thermodynamics, be sure to maintain those details throughout your series!

Presentation: This next one is something of a “personal preference” issue. Some readers (and writers, for that matter) try to keep the books in their series as similar to each other as possible.  This, of course, is called “formula”, and you see it in TV shows and serialized novels all of the time.  Sometimes your audience just wants to get back together with a familiar character – it doesn’t matter if the plot is the same through each and every book or if the only changes to your protagonist’s life between volumes are only minor ones.  In these cases, it’s more about spending quality time with some fictional old friends.

If this is your thing, AWESOME! I’ve enjoyed reading novels set up like this, and, honestly, I’ve always wanted to write one.  Maybe someday I will.

With Blood Skies, I prefer to mix things up a little bit between books.  That doesn’t mean that every novel is totally different – they all take place in the same world, have the same main character and follow the same rules, but that didn’t mean I wanted each book to be a carbon copy of the others.  Sometimes a change of scenery is all that’s needed, or a different narrative approach.  If Book 1 in your series takes place in a desert, shift Book 2 to a jungle; if everything is always told from your protagonist’s point of view, shift things to a different character in Book 3 when your main character vanishes; if your series is always told in 3rd person, shifted one volume to 1st person for a change.  Etc.

Stamina: I’ll say it again: Writing a novel is hard.  Writing a series is just nuts. I published Blood Skies in June of 2011.  I’ve averaged a new book in the series about every five-and-half months.  Depending on whom you ask, that’s either freakishly fast, or way too slow.

There’s a reason some Indie authors choose to wait until they have their entire series at least drafted before they even think about releasing – so they can lessen the time between releases.  This is a solid plan…much more solid than setting unrealistic expectations and then killing yourself trying to crank the next book out (aka “Plan Steve”).

Whatever your pace, whatever your plan, be persistent.  The world won’t end if you take more than a couple of months to come out with Book 2, but you probably shouldn’t wait a year between novels, either.
Know your limits.  I’ve severely cut back on my writing/editing schedule over the past month because of work, kids, and the demands of maintaining a blog and marketing on top of finding time to actually write, but I’m still sure to keep working every single day.  Eventually I’ll crank things back up, but for now I need to move at a slower pace.

Only you know how much you can or can’t handle.  Don’t sell yourself short – never, EVER do that, because everyone else is already set to do that for you, and the last thing you want is to help them out – but don’t stretch yourself thin.  Set yourself up for success, and go kick some ass.

Steven Montano is the author of the Blood Skies series and an accountant for a gaming company.  Sadly, only one of these professions actually pays the bills.  Steve lives south of Seattle, Washington with his wife, two kids, and a dog of dubious intellect.

Check out Steve’s site, follow him on Twitter, or check out his page on Facebook. You can pick up Blood Skies here.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Best of Friday Flash Vol 2

It's not long since my last story appeared in an anthology (Anonymous in the Penny Dreadfuls Halloween Special) but now I can announce that I have another story in a collection. This time round, it's A Girl's Best Friend, formerly a Friday Flash on my blog, that is now appearing in the Best of Friday Flash: Volume 2.

Most people know me for writing horror, or stories with some kind of twist ending, and there are a few who recognise the Westerns that I write. Yet A Girl's Best Friend tells the story of a teddy bear named William (inspired by the bear in the photo), and there's not a cowboy or a poltergeist in sight. It's one of my mother's favourites among all the stories I've ever written, and to date it remains one of my most popular flashes - it's received the most blog hits, and even garnered comments on Facebook from people who don't usually write my stories.

When the call went out to submit a piece of flash to the anthology, I couldn't help but submit A Girl's Best Friend. It's not necessarily representative of my writing, but I'm damn proud of it, and I was thrilled when it was accepted. You can find all the details on Emergent Publishing's website, in their bookstore.

Friday, 2 November 2012

#FridayFlash - Forever

It was late in the afternoon in December. We lay on the bonnet of Petey's car, parked up in a clearing at the edge of the old town woods. We ate cheese sandwiches and drank weak tea, watching stormclouds drift down from the north. They brought snow that day, and we stayed there catching snowflakes on our tongues and eyelashes until our joints got stiff. We clambered, numb and half-frozen, into the car. We laughed and sang along to the radio while the ancient heater cranked into life, and we thawed in the front of his Datsun. He told jokes and I giggled, and everything seemed right with the world. Then the Rubettes came on and Petey got serious, taking my hands and telling me he'd love me forever, if only I'd love him too. We kissed and made the kind of stupid promises you make when you're too young to know any better.

That was thirty eight years ago. Two weeks later, Petey lost control on the ice and slid off the ring road into a tree. I cried for a week but life moves on, doesn't it? I met Tony at a disco at my art college and thought we'd be together forever. Three months later he finished with me - he mumbled something about the "weird shit" in my house and walked out, complaining of doors banging at all hours and the dog barking at nothing in front of the TV. Robert, a guy I met at the gallery, said the same thing and left after six months. Took me three more attempts at a relationship until I finally saw Petey too, outlined in starlight on the landing when I went to the loo one Tuesday night. I'd promised forever, hadn't I?

Now I'm a couple of years shy of 60, and Petey's still here. He spooks the little trick or treaters at Halloween, and he even scared off a couple of lads who tried to break in. Pity I can't tell the insurance people and get a reduction on my premium. He potters about when I'm out, and we sit and watch TV when I'm in. I don't always see him these days, he's faded as time's gone on, but I know he's there. I can smell the cheap leather from that old Datsun, or I hear his laugh in the kitchen when the dinner goes wrong again.

Folk just see a woman on her own, no kids or husband, and they ask if I'm lonely, but how can I be? I've got my Petey, haven't I? He keeps me company when no one else will come round, and if this cough is anything to go by, I'll be seeing him soon enough. I don't mind, not really. After all, we promised "Forever".

Thursday, 1 November 2012


I'll lay it right on the table - I'm not doing NaNoWriMo this year. I can't. That's not to say I don't think it's a good idea - I do. I "won" in 2008 and 2010, writing my novels for Fowlis Westerby and Vertigo City respectively. Sadly I just don't have the time this year. Last year I kidded myself that I could do it, and I was going to try to write some of my Parrots & Piracy short stories. I managed 2000 words and gave up because my head just wasn't in the right place. This year, as much as I want to join in, I just know it'd probably drive me crazy with stress.

NaNoWriMo is a huge undertaking at the best of times but throughout November, I'll be working on my PhD, two assignments for my teacher training course, and I'll be prepping and delivering not one but TWO nightclasses on Photoshop and InDesign - that's in addition to my day job, Friday flashes, edits to make on my horror/fantasy novella, and various blogging commitments. If I try to insert a need to write 1,667 words per day...well I'll just about break.

Ali Luke has written a fairly comprehensive post about why you should, and shouldn't, do NaNoWriMo.  I'll just leave you by saying I'm not doing it, but I wish you the best of luck if you decide you want to....

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween, one and all! Yes, it's my favourite day of the year and as a writer of spooky tales, and someone who's studying spooky films for her thesis, it seemed only right to talk about something spooky today. However, rather than making a list of my favourite ghost stories, or horror films, which would be all too easy but also all too predictable, I thought it might be more interesting to list the top five weird things that have ever happened to me! There are a lot more than just these five, but these were unusual enough to warrant inclusion. They're in no particular order, and given the fact I don't remember actually being scared, just 'weirded out', I think I must have the psychic constitution of a concrete elephant!

1) Talking to a fictional character on a ouija board.
Last April, I went to a ghost hunt at Kielder Castle in Northumberland, where I was blogging about the event. A ouija board session was started in one of the downstairs rooms, and after a couple had apparently had a conversation with a deceased relative, someone (or something) spelled out my real name. I asked who it was, and the planchette spelled out 'Grey'. By now I'm pretty sure you're all familiar with Grey O'Donnell, the bounty hunter hero of my pulp Western, The Guns of Retribution. I was a little taken aback, so I asked him if he had a message. He said simply 'Thank you', and when I asked what for, he replied 'Life'. He said goodbye and that was that - and I found it completely weird! It was especially strange since neither I nor the only other person in the room who knew my real name were actually touching the board, and the other three people didn't know me, or Grey, from a hole in the ground. Question is, did I create Grey and imbue him with some form of life through the creative process...or did he come to me to tell his story?

2) Feeling a hand on my shoulder.
During another ghost hunt, I was in the pit beneath the Black Gate in Newcastle. It's allegedly a site of poltergeist activity, and people often report ouija conversations with a seventeenth century witch finder named Thomas in the area. We were doing another ouija board in the pit, when I suddenly felt something touch my shoulder, as though someone had tried to get my attention. There was no one near me and at the time, I had this stupid notion that a spider had dropped on me, but it would have needed to be a spider that weighed about the same as a small house cat to make the same impact! Was it a hand? And if so...whose hand was it?

3) There was someone behind us.
I went to Wales in 2008 with my parents, and one of our trips was to the Llechwedd Slate Mines. It's a fascinating place, if you ever find yourself in that neck of the woods, and one of the things to see is the mine workings that lie about ten storeys underground. In the first room, we were standing in a group looking up at one of the slate workings, and the staff turned off the lights so we could experience exactly how dark it would have been in its heyday. My mother and I were standing right at the back of the group and we both turned around at the same time, convinced that someone else was standing behind us. The lights came back on and there was no one there, and no one in the room had moved, so who, or what, was it? Having seen The Descent, I can only speculate...

4) The woman on the landing.
In my last flat, I lived on the second floor at the top of the building. There was a landing outside my door, and every now and then, I'd feel like I wasn't alone if I went onto the landing - usually at dusk, and especially in the winter. I usually chalked it up to an over-active imagination but on one particular occasion, I had to venture out onto the landing to go downstairs to the toilet. I practically threw myself down the stairs, such was my discomfort at being out there and my hurry to get back to my flat, and as I was passing underneath the landing on the lower staircase, I got a peculiar mental image of a blonde woman, dangling from a short rope. Even stranger, the name 'Miranda' popped into my head. I turned it into a story, The Stairs, which is in my Checkmate story collection, but that landing never stopped freaking me out.

5) The doll who moved on his own.
One of my previous boyfriends was a huge fan of Final Fantasy and for his birthday one year, I bought him one of the collectible figures of Squall from Final Fantasy VIII. Thing was, Squall wouldn't stay where you left him. I remember seeing him in my boyfriend's bedroom, then going into the bathroom and finding Squall lying on the edge of the bath. Given my boyfriend was in the back garden at the time and I was the only one inside, I found it a little strange that Squall should beat me to the bathroom. He kept turning up in all kinds of places, including the shed, and we never did get to the bottom of it. There was some sort of presence in that flat, one that definitely didn't like me, and it used to make my boyfriend's kitten go nuts, but I have no idea if it's still there.

How about you? What weird experiences have you had?

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Next Big Thing

As far as I can tell, I've been tagged three times to do the Next Big Thing meme, by Cathy Russell, Richard Bon and Andrew Reid. So I figured I might as well give it a shot...

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing

What is the working title of your book?
The Necromancer's Apprentice.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I'd just watched The Sorceror's Apprentice with a friend and me being me, I said "Wouldn't it be cool if that was a necromancer instead of a sorceror?" and the idea ran from there. The male sorceror became a female Necromancer General, and the army of mops became mummies. I'd had a mental image of a place called the House of the Long Dead kicking around in the back of my mind for a while, and now I had a home for it.

What genre does your book fall under?
It straddles the boundary between horror and dark fantasy. The world in which it is set is part fantasy city/part Ancient Egypt, but it's got bloodthirsty mummies as well.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Charlie Cox would make a good Jyximus, the apprentice, and I'd like Sigourney Weaver for Eufame, the necromancer, but I'm not sure about the rest of the cast. I'd want Tom Hiddleston in there but that's purely because I think he should be in everything.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
"An over-ambitious apprentice uses illicit knowledge to raise a mummy army of assistants...except this army will settle only for blood."

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I've got an editor who wants to work on it already so I think I'll be doing the indie press route. I've got no problems with self publishing or the traditional route, but I quite like the indie press approach. You have the contact with the publisher, so they handle the formatting, cover etc., but you're more than just a tiny cog in a huge machine.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I don't really know, I didn't time myself, but it must have been a few months. It's only a novella though so it's not like I've churned out 80,000 words in four months. I'm currently running edits before I send it out to the beta readers.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
There will no doubt be Harry Potter comparisons due to the fact my apprentice starts off in an academy of magick, but it's inspired a lot more by Fantasia and The Mummy. I tend to be more inspired by films than books but that's what happens when you're a film student.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The Sorceror's Apprentice! Actually I'd have to say Disney, since there are elements of both Fantasia and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty in there. But for encouragement to actually write it, then I have to say it would be Carrie Clevenger and Nerine Dorman. I don't think I'd have finished writing the first draft without them prodding me along.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
There are mummies in it! Not enough people write mummies these days.

* * *

I'm not tagging anyone specifically but if you fancy a go and want to discuss your current work, then feel free - but drop me a link in the comments so I can read your answers!

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Halloween Anthology

It's almost Halloween (oh I'm so excited already) and I'm happy to announce that I have a story in a new Halloween-themed anthology! My mummy-with-a-difference story, Anonymous, can be found in the Penny Dreadfuls Halloween Special, which will be FREE on Amazon until Wednesday - how's that for a Halloween treat?

You can grab it in the US or UK for the Kindle - if you don't have a Kindle, then you can get the free app for your PC or smartphone. I've got it for my Android phone and the app's not bad.

Edited by Benjamin Knox, the blurb reads thus;

Thirteen deliciously ghoulish tales will make your Halloween Night that much more fun and creepy. Hide under the blankets with a flash light, stifle a scream, suppress a giggle, as some of the rising stars of horror and dark fiction bring you a collection of chilling and terrifying tales you'll never forget!

And isn't that a wonderful cover? The art is by Carmit Manor Massimino.

Grab your copy and enjoy a ghoulish scare...

Friday, 26 October 2012

#FridayFlash - Queens of Twilight

The inhabitants of Karloff Falls gathered at the single bar on Main Street for the annual Halloween Battle of the Bands contest. Some of the townsfolk wore homemade T-shirts to support their friends or neighbours. Others wore disinterested expressions, there solely due to the lack of anything else to do.

MC Marie Festre adjusted her Morticia Addams wig and wiggled onto the stage.

"Good evening, Karloff Falls!"

The crowd yelled a greeting in reply.

"Are you ready for the Battle of the Bands?"

Another shouted affirmation. Marie smiled.

"Well give it up for the Queens of Twilight!"

Isolated pockets of applause were scattered among the silent crowd. Four women shuffled onstage, greeted by stony faces. They looked at each other with dead eyes and shrugged. The tallest woman headed for the microphone, and wrapped bony fingers around the stand. Her skin bloomed pale green under the stage lights.

"What's up, Karloff Falls?!"

Silence. The singer shot a glance to the guitarist to her right. The guitarist gestured to the crowd. The singer bit her lip and turned back to the audience.

"I'm Elsa, and this is Glenda, Lyra and Rita," said the singer, pointing to the bassist, guitarist and drummer.

Several fans whooped in the crowd. A man near the front mimed a dramatic yawn. Elsa narrowed her eyes and leaned in towards the mike.
"People keep complaining that music is too manufactured these days. Well, our manager scoured the length and breadth of the state to put us together!"

Elsa's pronouncement provoked squeals and cheers from the band's few rabid fans in the crowd. Bored chatter began among the rest of the audience. Lyra picked at the ugly seam that ran up her arm from her wrist to her collarbone. Glenda tightened the bolts in her neck before adjusting the strap of her bass.

"So we say yes, a lot of music is manufactured, but they don't get more manufactured than us!"
Elsa punched the air to more scattered cheers. Rita and Lyra leaned in to squeal into Elsa's microphone and the band launched into their first number, Little Lightning Bolt.

Their manager waited in the wings, smiling as the band's raucous blend of punk and 50s rock n roll won over the more skeptical patrons in the crowd. He twiddled the ring on his little finger, caressing the Frankenstein family crest set in gold.

The Queens of Twilight finished their first song to screams for more. Their manager smiled. Great-great-great-grandfather would be so proud.