Friday 2 March 2012

Friday Flash - Lonely Shadows

The shadow sat among the tall grass beside the old Chesham mausoleum. It pattered its fingers against the ground, tapping out a half-remembered rhythm. A blackbird stopped pecking for worms nearby, and shot the shadow a filthy look. It flew away, heading for quiet ground near the pond.

Even the birds leave me alone, thought the shadow. It looked around the cemetery at all the silent graves and stifled a sob. All of the other shadows found new owners. Even its owner's reflection found someone else within months.

A little girl tottered around the corner of the church. She skipped between graves, singing a tuneless song about piglets. The shadow remembered the unbridled joy of skipping. It smiled despite itself.

"Ellie, don't go too far!" called the little girl's mother. She and another woman knelt beside a grave near the chapel.

Ellie stopped so suddenly she swayed in her little pink shoes. She stared at the mausoleum. The shadow started when it realised she wasn’t quite staring at the mausoleum itself. It raised trembling fingers and waved from one side to the other. Ellie's eyes followed the progress of the hand.

"You can see me," said the shadow.

Ellie nodded. The shadow looked beyond the little girl. Her mother and aunt were occupied tidying a grave. One of the new ones, thought the shadow.

"Hello, Mr Shadow."

"Erm, hello." The shadow coughed, its voice creaky from lack of use.

"Whose shadow are you?" asked Ellie. She plunged her fists into the pockets of her red coat.

"Mansell Cribbington's."

"That's a funny name."

"It is an old name, my dear girl," said the shadow. It looked at the gravestone one row away from the mausoleum to check the date of death. 1876. It bit its lip - had it really been so many years?

"Have you been sitting here long?" asked Ellie.

"Since Mansell died." The shadow pointed at the gravestone.

"All by yourself?"

"Yes." The shadow looked at the ground. It focussed very hard on a stalk of grass wafting in the afternoon breeze.

"That's sad. Can't you find a new owner?"

"I’m not entirely sure that I would know how." The shadow stared at the grass.

“I used to be scared of my shadow but Daddy says it’s just from of the sun.”

The shadow snorted. Ah, the naiveté of youth! Having said that, Mansell believed something similar, but it didn’t stop the shadow from having a mind of its own.

"Are you scared to leave here?" asked Ellie. She glanced across to her mother.

"Yes. Yes, I rather suppose that I am."

"I keep asking Mummy for a puppy but she won't let me have one."

"Dogs are marvellous creatures. Mansell had three English Setters."

The shadow remembered how the dogs barked and snapped at it when they first arrived. The novelty passed, and soon they ignored the shadow altogether. He passed many an enjoyable hour watching their exploits.

"Could I be your new owner?" asked Ellie.

The shadow looked up to see Ellie standing over it. She reached out a pudgy hand, her fingers brushing the edge of the shadow. It rippled at her touch and she giggled.

"I don't know. I don't think I can have an owner any more. I'm too old."

“Can you be my pet?”

The shadow turned sideways, its head appearing in profile. It wrinkled its nose at the suggestion.

“I am no one’s pet, dear girl. However, I suppose I could be a companion of sorts.”

“Our house is really big, and it’s really old. Mummy gets migraines so she keeps the curtains shut.” Ellie twirled in a circle.

“Very well.” The shadow smiled to think of such darkness.

Ellie reached out and took hold of the edge of the shadow. She folded it edge to edge, folding it over and over until she could fit the black square in her pocket. The little girl skipped away towards her mother.

The shadow slept in the folds of her coat, so eager to leave the cemetery that it didn’t notice that Ellie cast no shadow of her own.

Thursday 1 March 2012

[Guest Post] Tony Noland on Ideas

Last week, I threw open the doors of the Blunt Pencil (sounds like a pirate tavern, doesn't it?) and invited Beth Trissel to talk about the importance of research. Today, I'm pleased to welcome my very good friend Tony Noland. I've been kicking around the concept of a series of posts intended to explore the initial idea that sparked the beginning of a story, and Tony has very graciously agreed to join in! I'll be sharing the particular story he's talking about at the end of the post. So, without any further ado, over to you, Tony!

* * *

If you were to have your life's work taken from you, how would you react? I'm talking about the main thing that drives you, your chief source of joy and delight in life, what gives you your self-identity and self-respect. If you found out that you had to give it up, knowing that you would lose all your friends, all your status in the community, everything that mattered... how would that feel?

This is no fiction, of course. Every day, people are forced to give up careers, activities and relationships through the vicissitudes of life. Even without global upheavals like war, famine or zombie apocalypse, everyday changes in the job market, family turmoil, health crises... these can make any of us face terrible decisions with major impacts on our emotional well-being.

But what if it was a thriving career as a superhero you had to give up? And, just to make the stakes even higher, what if you had to give it up for a stupid, embarrassing, humiliating reason?

In writing "Grey Ghost Gone", I wanted to explore the emotions in that scenario. When playboy billionaire Harold Rentnick is forced to make that hard decision of giving up his superhero career as the Grey Ghost, his biggest loss is emotional. He misses using the superpowers and the crimefighting excitement, but what he really misses are his friends, his romantic attachments, his sense of belonging.

The costumes, powers and codenames aside, this story is a tragedy for a very human reason. Mr. Rentnick had no one to fully share himself with. People wear masks to protect themselves emotionally, but an inevitable consequence is isolation. He kept his life so compartmentalized that when tragedy struck, he had no one he felt he could to turn to, no one to lean on. In fact, he was so concerned with preserving the dignity of the Grey Ghost's image, and of maintaining that mask, that he went to great lengths to deliberately cut himself off from the friends who tried to help. With secret identities and life challenges of their own, I have no doubt they would have understood and they would have supported him in transition to a new life.

Instead, he isolated himself and lived only with his grief and loss. He was reduced to bitterness and solitude, convinced that he was worthless and had no reason to go on. This, because there was no one in his life who might have told him differently.

In this story, superheroes are people, with human needs. My hope is that readers can find something in it to connect with, even if they don't have a magic ring.


"Grey Ghost Gone"

by Tony Noland

Harold pulled into his garage, killed the engine and took off his sunglasses. Six more hours until sundown, as if it mattered. Nothing mattered, not anymore. The life of Harold W. Rentnick III was never much to speak of, but his night-time secret identity as a vigilante super-hero used to make his days bearable. Not long ago, he lived for the night, was anxious to leave this plush prison and go out to prowl the mean streets. Now, he just sat alone at home watching CSI reruns and movies from his Netflix queue.

True, home was a 34-room mansion on a secure estate, but so what? Harold knew that he was a boring, unlovable lump. It was his alter ego, the Grey Ghost, whom everyone liked to be with. When he was behind the mask of the Ghost, he could be clever, funny, charming, flirtatious... free. People liked him when was the Ghost. People only tried to hang out with Harold because he was rich. Whether they were from families that were rich, super-rich or don't-bother-asking-rich, it was all about money. There was no one he could trust, with whom he could be himself. Money was like a disease that kept him apart from everyone else, a disease for which he knew no cure.

In the end, it was all worthless. He hated being Harold. He'd trade every cent of it to be able to be the Grey Ghost again; even if he had to start over from nothing, he'd do it tomorrow. But it was impossible.

He got out of the Benz and went into the empty house. The super-strength and ESP, he missed those, of course, but more than that or any of the other powers, he missed being cool and mysterious, being admired. He missed hanging out with RocketMan and Raptor, just kicking ass and patrolling together through the watches of the night. He even missed his on-again, off-again dating with Electra, crazy jealous as she was of that partnership he'd had with the Blonde Bombshell. He missed all of his friends.

But he dared not put on the magic ring that gave him his powers, not even once for old time's sake. The pain was just unbearable when he took the ring off, and he couldn't stay as the Ghost for more than 72 hours without dying of thirst.

The ring was upstairs, on his dresser in that little wooden box, the same one he'd found in that cave in Bolivia. The carved piece of bone was dense and smooth, and he’d been captivated by its beauty and power from the moment he saw it. When he first put it on though, he’d realized he had something unique in all the world. It had taken him a while to figure out the powers that came with the ring, but it was a chance to completely reinvent himself. How ironic that the same aspect of the ring's power which had made him feared and hated in the criminal underworld was also the very thing that forced him to retire last year.

As the Grey Ghost, all forms of metal and other inorganic matter passed right through him. Bullets, knives, shrapnel... none of it could touch him. It wasn't exactly full intangibility, but it also let him walk through brick walls, go in and out of locked vaults, stuff like that. It scared the hell out of the crooks. It never occurred to him to think about his teeth.

Harold walked down the back hall towards the kitchen. For more than twenty years, he'd been a super-hero, one of the best. Then, last spring, it all came to an end. He remembered going out on patrol after having a cavity fixed at the dentist, the first one he’d ever had. His new filling fell right through his mouth as soon as he put on the ring. He hadn't noticed until after that night's work, but when he took the ring off, that stabbing pain was horrible. It meant he'd had to endure a redrilling session to set a new one, which had also fallen out the very next night. Of course, he didn't feel the pain as the Grey Ghost; as soon as the magic ring came off, though...

After replacing the filling for the fourth time, the dentist said he'd have to pull the tooth and set a crown if the fillings kept coming out. Harold considered what it would mean to have endured the drilling into his jawbone to set the pin, only to have to go back and do it again and again when his intangibility kicked in. That wasn't a volitional power like the flight or the X-ray vision... it just happened when he put on the ring.

Harold thought of the needles jabbed into his jaw, the smell of burning bone during that last session in the dentist's chair, the metallic taste of the most recent filling. With his jaw still aching, he made the hardest decision of his life. He'd given up his life's work, his passion, the only thing that made life enjoyable. He sent a secret coded message to the mayor and to Fellowship of Protectors, telling them of his decision to retire, citing "medical reasons". Every single one of them expressed concern, offered support, asked if he needed help. The Diamond Devil and Ms. Crusher even offered to meet up in real life.

He didn't answer any of them. None of his friends - the Grey Ghost's friends - knew who he really was, and he wanted to keep it that way. He couldn't bear to let anyone know that behind the mask of the Grey Ghost, the spookiest, cleverest hero of them all, he was just Harold Rentnick, a worthless billionaire.

From one of the kitchen cupboards, Harold took a tall glass. From the refrigerator, he took a container of orange juice. From the butler's pantry, he got a fresh bottle of Grey Goose vodka. It had been his favorite brand since he'd picked his nom-de-heroique. He smiled at that private joke one last time. In his pocket was a rattling bottle, a full prescription of sleeping pills. Unbuttoning his shirt, Harold went out onto the deck where the hot tub waited.

* * *

If you enjoyed that, Tony posts weekly fiction on his blog, and you can pick up his Blood Picnic anthology from Smashwords, Barnes & NobleSony, Kobo and Amazon! You can also follow him on Twitter @TonyNoland.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Word counts can be your friend

I was talking to Helen Howell, Adam Byatt and Larry Kollar last night about word counts, particularly since I was pleased I'd managed to put in 1800 words on my sequel to The Guns of Retribution. It sounds like a lot, but I've been working on a schedule of 500 words per day. It's a manageable amount, so that if I have to miss a day, I can catch up the following day with little effort, but I'm more inclined to write since it's "only" 500 words. If I want to write more, then I do, but I usually stick to my word count.

Why am I doing this? Well I'm aiming at a total word count of 30,000 as it's a novella, and I figured I could write my novella in just sixty days if I wrote 500 words every day. As I've said, 500 is a small enough amount to make it manageable, and it's a large enough amount to make a daily dent in my target. I've never skipped more than two days in a row, and as such, I'm still on schedule to finish the first draft by the end of March. It also means that I have time to work on the sequel, as well as working on my PhD and writing a weekly Friday flash. WIN!

I'm only really talking about it for the benefit of the people who say they don't have time to write. If you're the type who feels like you've not really done any work unless you've sat down and blitzed 2000 words in one sitting then no, you possibly don't have time. But if you're happy to chip away at your target on a daily basis, then you'll find 500 word instalments add up in no time. I'm already at 19,000 words! Since I've found 500 words easy enough to manage, I'm intending to up my limit to 1000 words when I come to write my next novella.

So give daily word counts a go and see how much more of that novel you manage to get down.

Monday 27 February 2012

Photo Prompt 74

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 74th prompt is The Nave.

The Nave

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!