Run | Flash Fiction

run_longMark ran. He started without a warm-up. He had never run in his adult life, and not since gaining those last few pounds that put him over the Bar – the ‘your health is seriously at risk’ bar.

He made it about ten feet, and fell to his knees, small scratches drawing a little blood and a little whine. “Suck it up,” he hissed to himself. He struggled to his feet, and he ran.

Mark managed to run a further fourteen feet, when his breath caught. He wheezed, clutching his chest – he would have described it as ‘dramatically’, if he wasn’t thoroughly hating his life at the moment. There was no way he had time for adverbs.

He coughed, feeling cold air scratch at his throat, and ran again. Twenty feet later, and Mark thought he’d sprained his ankle. He sat down, “Just for a minute.” Mark removed his right shoe, massaged a chubby ankle. He was satisfied he wasn’t incapacitated beyond his belly, and lumbered to his feet. He was an awkward blob, and he knew it, and it was even more apparent when he was bent over.

Without a doubt, bending over was the worst.

It took him a moment, testing his weight on his ankle, and he began to run again. Mark managed fifty feet, when his stomach lurched. He could feel his breakfast churning, and he knew he was going to get sick.

The vomit sprayed a good ten feet, before sloshing from his mouth. He pulled a tissue from his pocket – tissues he was always sure to keep on his person in case of a pepper overdose on his dinner that could cause a sneezing fit – and wiped his face clean.

He did not have time to pretend he was interested in the environment. He ran again. One hundred feet, and the sweat was soaking through his jacket. He definitely was not dressed for this. He tossed it to the ground, damp and stinking and perhaps a little bit splashed with vomit. He tried to suppress his disgust.

When he ran close to three hundred feet, his needed to remove his t-shirt, too. His stomach, a little bit hairy, incredibly pale, and bulging in all the wrong places, flopped out over his jeans.

“I should have changed,” he said to himself. The jeans were baggy, and scraped against the ground when he walked. He did not want to think of the damage they were sustaining as he ran the next eight hundred feet.

His runners – made for comfort, not for sport – came off next. They were old, anyway, he reasoned.

Now, wearing just a pair of jeans, a pair of socks, and a pair of underwear, he was barely recognisable as a human being. He was all fat, no form, and he was running. Half a mile. A mile. No more socks – too many holes.

His feet bled after the next couple of miles, and he whined over that, too, until he grew used to the pain. It was early in the morning, the world was empty, and he could deal with a little bit of injury. They were only feet. He spent most of his time off them, anyway.

Ten miles later, the jeans had to come off.

He decided that was as far as he would go, in terms of stripping his clothes. Wearing just a pair of underwear – a pair that looked like shorts, for all intents and purposes – he ran another twenty five miles.

He stopped, and had a look around his immediate vicinity. “Nope, no idea.” He was lost in a field, trees scattered around him, power lines still visible. He hadn’t escaped modern society in its entirety, but he was definitely getting close. No more cars. No more people. He’d left early enough that no one had seen him fall. No one had seen him vomit. No one had seen him strip.

No one was witness to the next sixty miles, or the hundred that followed.

He was sunburnt – or just red from the cold, he couldn’t tell. He tried to think of the seasons, but they all melded together. His sweat kept him cool, his fat kept him warm, and the sky was clear. He’d seen it like that in December, and he’d seen it like that in July – it was just the sky, clear blue and brilliant.

He ran three hundred miles, and he began to worry he was going to run out of land.

Nothing could stop him running the next eight hundred. Nothing, except a stone in the road. He tripped, a proper fall this time, running his fastest, body almost completely bare to the world. Somehow, night had come and gone and come again and he hadn’t noticed. It could have been a week, but he hadn’t stopped, and he hadn’t changed. He was still all fat and sweat and determination, and he was tumbling to the ground with a stubbed toe and a scream.

Mark swore when he hit the ground, his back tearing up, blood welling through the folds of his skin. He felt a bone break in his left arm on the first on-ground tumble. His head crashed into the rocks. He was immediately blinded by blood in his eyes.

He tumbled over sharp rocks for a good ten feet, before coming to a stop. His back wasn’t broken. He wasn’t given the relief from pain that paralysis might have given him. Instead, he needed to vomit again. His head couldn’t stay still. A buzzing in his ears made him feel sicker. His arms ached, and the one that hadn’t broken was still slick with blood.

He lay there, and he cried, and he tried to get up.

Mark’s legs worked fine. It took him half an hour of tears and curses to stand.

He ran again. He didn’t stop, not so long as there was ground beneath him. Mark ran despite the pain, and because of it.

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Life After Dublin Comic Con

I don’t update this blog enough – I barely got to update Comix Ireland enough in the run up to Dublin Comic Con – so there’s a lot to catch you up on. The biggest changes, by far, are in the things I keep on my market/convention table. Since my last post, I’ve attended two conventions – WexWorld and Dublin Comic Con – as well as the Geek Mart and Small Press Day. In that time, I’ve released a few new short stories, and a whole range of comics.

Chuck issue #1 was released with How to Live with Your Cat (When Your Cat is an Internationally Renowned Assassin) at Small Press Day in July, with Conor Carroll and Gareth Luby on art, respectively. Chuck is a pacifist ninja with a vow of silence and a magical sword, whereas Frankie (the assassin cat) is loaded down with sass and more weapons than the average person can carry.

Frankie then made a proper comic debut in Meouch, art by Gareth Luby, at Dublin Comic Con. Where his first book deals with his life with his owner – or rather, how his owner survives having a cat like him around – the second book deals with a mission, Operation Bad Dog. We get a look at The Client, and a good taster of how homicidal our wee protagonist can be. Inspired by Gareth’s own cat, Frankie is one that you’ll be seeing a lot of over the next while.

Then there was The Wren issue 13, my print debut with Buttonpress Publications. I previously worked with artist Jason Browne on Tomte: The Warrior Elf ahead of Christmas last year, and now I’ve taken up the pen with the company properly. In issue 14, I’ll even get to introduce a villain! (But no spoilers as to who they’ll be or what they can do!)

As well as new comics, I also introduced a whole new range of print at Dublin Comic Con. The style is a bit minimalist, but the process ended up being a lot more complicated than expected for some characters. Loki and Thanos remain two of my favourites, but nothing beat the moment that someone got Batman signed by Kevin Conroy.

batman_signed_conroy

Since the convention, I’ve been busying myself with a few different sorts of work. A large part of my day on Tuesday went to cleaning up and putting away stock. Then, the work began on getting back to writing. The words didn’t come so easily, which I suppose is in part down to tiredness, and in part down to wanting to write a follow-up story to something I wrote a couple of months ago and haven’t looked at since.

A completely separate part of my workload was in creating a list of things to do for the rest of the year – some large projects, some habits I want to form – and prioritising them based on completion dates. This will see me being incredibly busy, and putting out a lot more material online. There’ll be a lot more writing going live, and a few more illustrations in the same style as my superhero prints.

Life after DCC, when I wasn’t recovering and trying not to get sick, has included a lot of thinking, planning and working out finer details in things. There’ll be new books and comics on their way over the next year, and a range of designs that’ll challenge me beyond belief. Which is good. Part of what I’ve needed the past while has been a challenge. (And trust me, the things I need to be doing for the next three weeks are going to be a massive challenge.)

Expect more soon. Including some hair pulling.

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Planning a Short Story: Case Study of ‘Wrong Side of the Bed’

In my time at the Geek Mart, I’ve produced 15 booklets, each with a short story in them similar in style to Wrong Side of the Bed and I’m often asked two things: 1. ‘Did you write all of these?’ (usually by someone just passing the table) and 2. ‘How did you write these?’ (usually by a writer who struggles to write short fiction, because all their ideas seem too big.)

Where the ideas come from is a whole other thing, but my advice is always the same to those who want to write short fiction: focus on one moment. Maybe it’s a result of teaching 11-year-olds to write short stories, but I became aware years ago that short stories don’t need an explosive ending, so long as they tell the tale correctly, reach a conclusion, and – all things going according to plan – have a twist.

The twist is the thing some people struggle with within a narrative arc, because we’re used to the Soap Opera version of an out-of-the-blue shock to the reader. What we need to remember, as writers, is that the twist works just as well if the reader can see it coming, if the point is to affect the protagonist. That was the approach I took with Wrong Side of the Bed.

Keep reading to see my plan for the story. (But it might help to read it first, to see how what I planned and what I wrote compare to one another.) Everything in italics is additional at the time of writing this.

Wrong Side of the Bed: Behind the Scenes

  1. Last time she slept: 48 hours ago. Stuck at home, afraid of what will happen. Specifically, afraid of what will happen if she falls asleep. The one-line abstract is ‘A girl teleports whenever she falls asleep.’

  2. Sleeps, wakes up in France in someone’s bed. Has to flee. Tries to fall back asleep. A story needs a problem, or nothing is really happening. Before letting my protagonist get to the ‘What if someone finds out and I become a lab-experiment?’ train of thought, I focused on placing her in uncomfortable scenarios.

  3. Wakes on a desert island. Heat causes her to fall asleep. A problem with other people is one thing. A problem alone is another. I chose to cut her off, make her face a bigger problem – life or death. Sometimes being cruel to our characters is a choice we have to make, other times it’s just for fun.

  4. Wakes up in a museum after-hours. Stares at the artwork. I had Ferriss Bueller on the mind, I think.

  5. Wakes up in the scene of a painting (IRL). Sleeps again. Finding herself less tired. Change the problem: she’s waking in places she’s thinking of, and she’s going to find it more difficult to get away if she wakes up somewhere she doesn’t want to be.

  6. Wakes at her mother’s house. Tells her she’s feeling unsettled. ~
  7. Spends day with her mother. Sleeps. Wakes in the same bed. A story needs a conclusion, and a problem has to go away. If this was a superhero story, she’d need to learn control over her superpower. Going for something closer to ‘Problems manifest in reality’ rather than ‘having a unique ability’, she had to get rid of the teleportation.

I won’t claim that it’s the best story out there, and maybe I didn’t follow all the typical rules of storytelling and flash fiction with it. At the very least, though, the approach to planning should help others who worry that an idea is too big or too small for a short story. In my case, Alexa’s waking hours were spent trying to get back asleep.

Knowing how much you’ll write for each point is a good way to judge how long your story will be. I was aiming for a thousand words – I ended up at 1145 – and knew that anywhere between 5-7 points would be enough to get me there, depending on how much detail I included in each one. I used this approach when planning A Death in the Family, writing down every point of action and the smaller details in new settings that needed to be addressed.

Every month, I’ll have a new short story up, and follow that up with another post like this. With a bit of luck, someone will learn something new about storytelling – that someone might even be me. What’s your approach to storytelling? Do you plan your stories in advance?

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Writing Prompt: Something Old

Traditionally, a bride on her wedding day has with her something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. It’s considered good luck on a wedding day, but it isn’t necessary. Equally, we can consider ourselves lucky as writers to be able to use such a tradition in our writing.

Almost every book you read will have a love story somewhere in its pages. Sometimes it’s unrequited. Sometimes it’s never explored. Sometimes it’s only a subplot between side characters, because the main protagonist is too busy slicing up dragons with an axe made from metals found only in the deepest mines of the Dwarf Kingdom to think about falling in love. But quite often, the love blossoms. And a lot of the time, when love blossoms it leads to marriage.

For the sake of writing for the sake of writing, and not because you’re working on a book, lets imagine that you have a wedding in your book, and whatever the circumstances of it – whether you’re writing something set in space or in a magical realm or, I don’t know, the Bronx – let’s pretend that the characters maintain the tradition of something old, something new, etc.

Even if you aren’t going to write the scene, these questions will help you figure out more about your character-to-be-wed.

  1. What are the items they bring with them up the aisle? (New, Old, Borrowed, Blue.)
  2. Why did they choose those items? What significance do they have for your character? Where did they come from? Who?
  3. What would happen if they couldn’t find one of the four?
  4. Do any of the items have any significance on the plot aside from the wedding?

Depending on the items and the story you’re telling, different items have different importance for the character. (I refuse to say “bride”, because what’s to say that a man in a same-sex relationship isn’t trying to upkeep the tradition?)

The ‘something new’ could be a sign of welcome into a new family, or something to indicate a letting-go of the past. The ‘something old’ could be a family heirloom (another tradition), an old toy or piece of clothing (a reminder of one’s youth), a photograph (a way to bring a loved one down the aisle after they’ve died) – it’s the option that deals with the character’s past most explicitly. The ‘something borrowed’ can be from a friend, a family member, a soon-to-be-in-law, or an important person in your story’s society. The ‘something blue’ is the where you can either surprise a reader (the something blue being incredibly valuable and/or rare) or just use it as a throwaway item (either metaphorically or literally, like a blue bouquet.)

There are other things you can consider about a wedding, if you want to stick to the topic for a while. Is it arranged? Do the couple love each other? Do either of them stand to gain – or lose – something by getting married? What led to the wedding? (Do you need to write about that first?) What will happen after the ceremony? Will they even get to say ‘I Do’?

A wedding is a big deal. How will you write yours?

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How to Write a Haiku

A few years ago, I picked up the habit of writing haiku as a warm up exercise. This was especially useful when I was writing Balor Reborn, because I was trying to write and publish the book in a week. (Spoiler alert, I did it!) I began each writing session by writing a few haiku, usually taking requests for subjects from friends. This meant writing on a few random topics, like jam and coffee, and a lot of them were written as innuendos. Anything to get the writing blood flowing, I guess.

To this day, I still find haiku to be a fun and interesting way to get myself thinking about word choices, and I’ve recently revived my old habit of writing Doctor Haik-Who based on the most recent episode of Doctor Who to air.

But how do you write a haiku? Thankfully, I’ve already written one to explain it.

Take five syllables, then add another seven. Finish with five more

Take five syllables,
Then add another seven.
Finish with five more.

It seems simple when it’s broken down like that, but there are often a few other things to take into consideration. Traditionally, the last sentence of the haiku should provide a twist.

Most relationships
Of boy meets girl gets married
Are not that simple.

I’m not going to say that my own haiku are the best examples out there, but they illustrate the point clear enough. (Pun definitely intended.) Haiku are short and simple in appearance. Usually, they address issues of nature or philosophy, but modern interpretations (read as: Western bastardisation) has loaned itself to dealing with every topic under the sun. As I said before, anything from tea to Doctor Who.

In rainless puddles
Find reflected reflections

And imperfect truths

(That’s a throwback to The Pilot, s10e01.)

In some circles, haiku take on different roles and forms. They’re used to tell stories, to make shapes, to become a new form of art in and of themselves. I used one myself in the promotion of- and original cover for- Balor Reborn back in 2012: a cirku. Designed to be read continuously, at its most natural starting point it still follows the rules of a haiku as far as syllables are concerned: 5-7-5.

A powerful evil
A divided family

An old Irish myth

The rules of haiku make them an interesting challenge in short-form poetry. There’s no need to pull out the rhyming dictionary. There’s no requirement to use flowery language. The focus is on specific word choice based on syllable count, not complexity, and to create something with meaning. Most of the time.

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don’t make sense

Refrigerator

If you thought I’d end this post seriously, you really missed all the puns. I just wish we knew who wrote the refrigerator piece.

What are your favourite haiku? Do you write any of your own? Leave one in the comments below.

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6000 Words a Day

I registered for Camp NaNoWriMo this year. That was a mistake.

For those who don’t know about it, it’s essentially a set-your-own-target version of National Novel Writing Month. Decide how much you want to write, enter the goal, enter a cabin to compete against friends or strangers, and let the site track your progress. Simple.

It’s not so simple when you do the two things that I did this year: I set myself a target of 80,000 words for April, and I went to a convention at the very start of the month. I was further set back by deciding to write a book that I hadn’t finished/started planning. Whoops.

So, I checked the stats. I checked what I need to do to meet my goal. Rounding up, 6000 words per day for the rest of the month.

Now, unemployment does provide plenty of time to reach that goal. I can totally do that. If I had a story to tell. I still haven’t sat down and planned the book, and so I’m faced with only one other option (aside from absolute failure): write a hella-ton of short stories.

Enter the London Dungeons notebook.

I began using this notebook as a place to write down ideas. Ten a day. That was how I worked it out – though that was more of a coincidence, since I was only able to realistically fit ten short ideas on each page.

Ten ideas a day aren’t always going to be ten good ideas. I might get one or two that I can actually work with. Others end up joining together and creating something new. Some make up a super team of ideas that end up creating a little story universe (as in the case of A Death in the Family, with The Local NecromancerHanging Up the ScytheThe Monochrome Marriage, Swipe Right for Blood LustThe Happy Pear, and The Misfortune Teller all filling in background details to a wider story-world.)

My short stories tend to be about a thousand words. So, I’ve to write 80 of them in the next couple of weeks to “win” Camp NaNoWriMo. Simple, right?

I have a process for writing these things. Bullet-points. I write down the little details of the stories, between 5 and 7 per story. Then it’s a case of fill in the blanks. Characters get created for the sole purpose of telling one story, of making one little detail become known – especially in the wider story-worlds that build up with a few tales.

 

Part of this will be easy. I know that I’ll want to write more stories relating to the paranormal story-world that a lot of my other tales fit into. But there are only so many different types of people and monsters that I can write about in short stories before it becomes uninteresting.

Under creative pressure, diversifying the workload is key. (Except, of course, when I’m writing a book and I use one song as the soundtrack for the entire writing experience.)

I tend to write in a few different genres. I have my paranormal stories. I have my Irish folklore stories. I write some science fiction, and I have a few superhero stories. (I have a LOT of superheroes whose stories haven’t been told, yet.)

I also sometimes use these “short stories” as chapters/scenes for longer stories, so I think I can focus on a few of those in the next couple of weeks. I don’t know how many of these will ever see the light of day. I don’t know if I’ll publish every single one of them – I still have loads from January that I haven’t done anything with – and I don’t know what way that publication would take place. Wrong Side of the Bed was from January and I only posted it on Friday.

But we’ll see.

I have a story arc planned for an English magician. I have a man who loses his wife and then his mind. And I have a bestiary of badness that the lovely folks of my paranormal police force have to deal with on a regular basis.

I don’t recommend anyone attempt this sort of writing challenge. I didn’t even mean to do it to myself. And I guess it wouldn’t hurt to try. So, my advice (for myself, as much for anyone else):

1. Plan stories in advance. It’ll be less of a headache that way. You can still surprise yourself when you write.

2. Set aside enough time to finish each story. If it takes forty-five minutes to an hour to write one, and you have an hour and a half to work, don’t assume you’ll definitely finish two.

3. Remember that they’re only first drafts. Don’t edit as you go.

4. Spread your writing time throughout the day, if you need to and you can. Six stories a day is probably a lot for most people. Take it in twos.

5. Don’t be afraid to fail.

6. Back up your work. Seriously. Put your work on a USB. Email it to yourself. Back it up on the cloud. (Google Drive is free, and stories don’t take up a lot of space.) You don’t want the pain of losing a day’s work.

And, most importantly, in the immortal words of Douglas Adams:

7. Don’t panic.

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Wrong Side of the Bed | Flash Fiction

In a worst case scenario, a human can survive up to eleven days without sleep. Alexa could manage two, before exhaustion began to settle in. She had had to travel for half of that time to get home, grateful for the kindness of strangers, and the music festival happening in her town that weekend. She was not planning on attending, but the influx of cars helped make her journey affordable – that is, free – and relatively easy. Even if she had been stuffed into the backseat beside someone who had given up on hygiene two days prior.

Alexa was not happy with her current predicament. Strange things were happening when she slept, things she wasn’t sure she could explain to anyone. She didn’t want to sleep, anymore, but her eyes were drooping shut as the kettle boiled for yet another cup of coffee.

She did not make it to the end of the boil, when she found herself jerking awake.

The problem with Alexa’s new sleeping habit was that it was random and unpredictable, and usually put her in a number of awkward scenarios. At first, she thought that she had been sleep walking, and sought advice on the subject online. But with doors locked, and no sign of leaving on a camera she had had installed in her entranceway, she began to ask more questions.

Specifically, “How am I waking up fifty miles away when my cameras don’t even show me leaving the house?” In this particular instance, however, her question to herself was, “Why can I see the Eifel Tower from the bed of this strange and not-so-alluring Frenchman?”

She sneaked out of the bedroom as quickly as she could. The man was snoring. Someone downstairs was singing poorly and Frenchly, while burning their breakfast. Alexa could not stand foreign languages, bad singing or burnt food, particularly not when she had not make a decision to visit foreign countries.

She knew the solution to her problem, and locked herself in the couple’s bathroom. Lock, in this instance, means closing the door and running the shower, in order to convince each of the other people in the house that their partner was in the room. She sat on the toilet, closed her eyes, and tried to sleep.

It took her a few minutes of trying to get comfortable, which she found was easier when she stopped thinking about the fact that she was in a stranger’s bathroom.

When she opened her eyes, she felt an enormous heat blast her from above. The heat came from the sun, which was less comforting than she thought it might have been, particularly when she found that she was sitting in hot, white sand.

She screamed, her only audience being the wide ocean that spread in every direction. It took her a few minutes to find some shelter from the sun. She wished there was some water nearby, just in case she was stranded for a long time. But this island was less like something out of a TV island survival show, and more like somewhere pirates were marooned to die horribly.

Alexa woke up in a museum. She did not know where, but she liked to look at the paintings. The building appeared to be closed, which didn’t help her with the location. It did give her a certain freedom of movement, however, which she embraced.

The island had been unpleasant. At least the museum would eventually fill with people. Maybe, she thought, a security guard would find her. Feed her. Give her some water. Maybe even arrest her, so she could try ask for help from someone who might be in a position to assist her more permanently.

In the meantime, she stared at the paintings. There was one of a park – Central Park, she realised, and then wondered whether the museum would really receive visitors – that she couldn’t take her eyes off.

It did not take long for Alexa to fall asleep looking at it, the image of it burned into her mind. She thought she might have been losing her mind when she woke up inside the painting. Except, of course, that there were other people with her, wandering through the park with expensive coffees and talking on expensive cell phones.

She knew she could probably get home from here, if she wanted to try. She did not know how long she had slept for, but she knew that she was finding herself less tired and more annoyed. Her sleeping habit was becoming something of a nuisance. People stared at her as they passed by. She escaped the scene for a library, hiding between two shelves on the floor.

She stayed there for an hour before falling asleep.

Alexa almost missed the desert island when she woke up in her mother’s house. “I didn’t hear you come in,” her mother said.

“I just popped by a minute ago,” Alexa replied. Silence. This was, as far as Alexa could tell, the most they had said to each other in three months. “I don’t call you enough,” she said. “Why don’t I call you any more?”

Her mother put her hands on her hips. “You want the list of things I thought it was about?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “A new boyfriend. An old boyfriend. A new job. Your current, terrible job. Drugs, illness, shame, regret, or my cooking.”

Alexa averted her eyes. “Illness is beginning to sound right,” she muttered. Her mother did not hear her. “I’m feeling a bit… I don’t know, unsettled at the moment.” She paused. Her mother was staring at her. “Do you think I could stay in my old room for the night? Home doesn’t feel like home.”

It did not take long for her mother to agree, to hug her, to start crying, or to suggest a hundred different ways to spend the day. Alexa did not realise that it was only early morning. So they baked. They talked about Alexa’s late father. They gossiped about the neighbours. Alexa shined a light on a few of the rumours that had gone around years ago, and which ones turned out to be right. Her mother showed her how to start knitting a scarf.

Counting it in her head, Alexa realised that she had not spent a full day with her mother – and just her mother – in more than fifteen years. She thought about that as she lay down in her old bed, last used regularly when she was getting ready to leave for college. She found a dozen years every summer not to come home.

“Alexa, sweetie, do you want breakfast?” her mother called in the morning. She had to ask twice to wake her daughter up. But, Alexa realised with a smile on her face, that she was still in her old high school bed. Breakfast sounded wonderful.

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