Free Spirit | Flash Fiction

While the Black Pages provided an ample amount of important information for potential customers and clients of the many magical and mystical businesses who advertised their services between its covers, one important detail was left out, on the assumption that it was Common Sense: on Halloween Night, the spirits of the dead are free to roam where they please. Barnabas Bonham, known to his friends as Barney, had not been aware of this when he was alive. It took him eight months to discover this, and only early enough to get slightly further than he’d ever managed to walk before he returned to the scene of his death.

Barney was not a stupid man. He knew a great many things about a great many subjects. The problem was, none of them were common. He had been a relatively powerful wizard in his day, but failed to observe basic facts of his environment, such as how dry the trees around him were, or the brewing storm overhead. He had been so focused on figuring out how to make his old bicycle fly, like he’d seen in E.T., that he didn’t notice the lightning strike that set half the forest on fire.

His bones did not burn. He was, instead, crushed under falling trees, and remarkably spared the sweet relief of passing to the great Beyond.

Barney could not remember what year it had been when he died, except that he’d had two young children and a wife to care for. She had died peacefully between Halloweens, leaving his son and his daughter to fend for themselves.

Kenneth had turned to journalism, writing for a daily newspaper in the non-magical community, completely devoid of any longing to follow in his father’s footsteps. Once a year, Barney was able to observe his son at work, demonstrating a small fraction of his magical potential in the Charm he had developed while interviewing people. Without explanation, Kenneth was able to get people talking about the most personal and intimate details of their lives if he needed them to. He had so far not used it to court himself a wife; Barney wasn’t sure if he was happy that his son was still single, or just proud that he hadn’t abused the power that he had been left.

In all the time that Barney had been dead, he had never heard Kenneth speak about him. He had taken to merely observing his son quietly, for just a few minutes, to see how he was doing.

His daughter, Suzie, on the other hand, had taken up a place in the magical community that was both respected and spat upon in equal measure: she was part of the policing force of Damage Control. Halloween was a dangerous time of the year for her. People in the community often saw it as a free pass for mischief and for letting their guard down; while certain, more responsible members of the community could get away with revealing their true forms, Suzie was on the tail of something much too dangerous to be in its true form: a werewolf.

The beast – Barney wasn’t sure if it was a man or a woman – had been killing people all over town for a week, its transformation completely out of the sync with the full moon, its victims suffering dreadfully; some of them died, others were beginning to experience the transformation themselves.

And, while Suzie was searching a dark alley for it behind a bar where most victims had been drinking, the werewolf was watching her. Barney was also watching her, from another part of the alley, and his eyes landed square on the werewolf’s eyes, glinting yellow death in the darkness.

“Suzie dear, you’ve got company,” he told her, the whole effort in vain. He had been trying to communicate with her for more years than he dared admit he’d been dead. The werewolf edged slowly closer. “I mean it. He looks angry.” Barney wasn’t sure when he’d made the decision to put a gender on a beast. It had male anger, he supposed. The sort of outrage only a man could experience when he wasn’t getting his way, because of the decision of a woman.

Damage Control were a fairly well armed bunch, in the grand scheme of things, but Suzie had only a silver knife in her hand to protect her, and that was mostly out of sight. It would do little to kill a werewolf. It would barely slow the beast down, especially not one the size she was following. It must have been a large man, Barney thought. He’d met werewolves before, back in his heyday. Werewolves, like sportsmen, were smaller back then.

The padding of the werewolf’s feet against the concrete path caught Suzie’s attention, but too late. It was already too close for her to react, teeth bared, claws extended.

“No!”

Barney couldn’t help himself, or explain his actions. A flash of light exploded from his hands as he placed himself between his daughter and the fangs of the wolf, throwing the attacker into the air. The whinny of a wounded canine disappeared into the night as the werewolf retreated.

“That showed you,” Barney said proudly.

“Dad?” Suzie whispered. He turned to her, her face stripped of colour. “It’s really you. After all this time. We thought…” She tried to place a hand on his shoulder, to pull him in for a hug, maybe, and her fingers slipped through him. “Oh. You’re really gone, aren’t you?”

“Really,” he agreed. “For the most part. Just got a little bit stuck, I guess.”

A crack of light on the horizon caught their attention. The sun was beginning to rise. Neither Suzie nor Barney had noticed the time. 

“Dad, where are you buried? I can send a Reaper. I can free you.”

The horizon was on fire, and he smiled. “You know, I can’t really remember. I must take note for next year, eh?”

He left her standing there, casting a shadow where he stood. Suzie would be fine, he thought for a moment. He’d see her again, his little girl.

He just had to wait. He just had to remember.

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Fantastic Ideas and Where to Find Them

Every writer who has ever accomplished anything is asked the same question by some fan at some event (or just online, since access is instant these days): Where do your ideas come from? (I have also been asked this, but by my mother who I’m not sure I explain things to properly. And she asked it in a more exasperated “Why are you doing this to me?” sort of way.)

While I’m not a massively successful writer, I do have some advice on coming up with ideas. This is tried and tested to help you find at least one good idea, while simultaneously providing you with more bad ones than you care to think about. It’s not a trick. It’s not going to get you a bestseller. And it won’t make you a better writer.

You need only a piece of paper or a notebook, a pen, and a timer. Give yourself five minutes, and write down ten ideas on a piece of paper. Random words and phrases, whatever pops into your head. And do this every day.

Not every idea is a story. Not every idea is even remotely useful. “A cat staring at people from a driveway” isn’t a particular useful idea. It’s also a little bit less original since Harry Potter. “A boy wizard” isn’t original, even when Rowling wrote a series of books around those three words. “A school for wizards” already existed before Hogwarts. Small, simple words and phrases look like nothing on a page. They’re random. Unconnected. Useless. Until you use them.

I keep a notebook of random ideas. Some of them have become stories. Some of them are merely elements of a tale. Many more are useless, simply part of the habit of writing down whatever comes to mind. (As a planner, not a pantser, this is a good way of getting beyond random spontaneity in the middle of a story that doesn’t contribute in any way. Inspiration still strikes, but it’s usually connected to the book I’m working on!)

How do you tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea? You can’t. They’re all bad until you use them, until a narrative starts to form around them. Ideas themselves are so often considered precious gems to be protected that no one ever talks about what they’re working on. But give a dozen writers one idea to work from, and you’ll get twelve original stories.

I’ve used this idea generation method for a lot of stories over the past couple of years. I picked it up from Tim Ferriss’s podcast, and while I haven’t been consistent with it for two years, I make a habit of taking at least a couple of weeks per year and following through on the daily ritual. It gave me the only novella I published this year, A Death in the Family, and it gave me a ton of short stories (and even a comic script) that, one day, may see the light of day.

With NaNoWriMo just around the corner, it might seem a bit late to start with a fresh idea. My advice, for the late starters: bullet point a dozen chapters of a book, to vaguely plot a start-to-finish, and then fill in the gaps as more detail reveals itself to you. It might amaze you the stories that’ll reveal themselves to you if you just let them.

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Countdown to NaNoWriMo

In 2008, with a week to go before November 1st, I decided to take part in NaNoWriMo for the first time. I was in my final year of secondary school, taking all honours classes, not feeling especially confident about the exams at the end of the school year, and not feeling like I’d do especially well with my writing to that point.

I gave it a shot, keeping a blog about the writing process. The posts exist somewhere on a computer or a memory stick or a harddrive, no longer online – having only existed on Bebo, that ancient relic of the Internet. They chronicled my journey with my protagonist, Sam, and all the ways I tried to keep myself going with the book. (When I went looking for the book’s cover for this post, I found them. They make for a cringe-worthy 3000 words.)

This hurts to look at. I’m sorry.

On November 30th, with only a few days to plan the book before the month began, I verified a word count of 50074 words. I “won” a free print copy of the book, Meet Sam. A friend of mine, a photographer named David Doherty, took some photos for me for the cover. In 2008, he was the only photographer I knew, and I had no design (a) experience or (b) software. I think I used something that came with a camera. I think we’ve both come a long way since then.

I still have a few copies of the book on my shelf. I had teachers and lecturers provide some feedback on it. There’s definitely something to work with, there, though my genre focus would require a bit of a rewrite with some slightly more fantastical elements thrown in (nothing that would drastically change the book, mind, just something to solidify it on the teetering edge of Fantasy, in the way that Kazuo Ishiguro writes Fantasy and Science Fiction.

The few days before NaNoWriMo are the best time to commit to a book. Meet Sam didn’t exist in my head before I decided to do NaNoWriMo.

I wholly believe that it’s not too late to start planning a book, that it’s not too late for someone to give it a shot. I’d only ever written one (bad) book before taking part for the first time, and had two incomplete books floating around up to this point.

Anyone who thinks that, maybe, they want to write a book should give it a shot. And here’s the thing I want to make clear, both now and with my NaNoWriMo novel for this year: failure is okay. Failure happens. We can never prepare for every eventuality. Things come up and derail a perfectly good month of writing, or a job, or a relationship. Something in life happens, and we have to figure out how to move forward from that point on.

But just because failure is a possibility, and just because you haven’t tried something, is no reason not to make an attempt. Life is about experiences.

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Ready, Set, NaNo

The last time I wrote on this blog, I was posting a short story. Soon thereafter, I was starting a new job. This post isn’t about my new job, except to say that it’s been the primary cause of (a) me having less time to do anything creative and (b) me feeling more like myself and wanting to be more creative. It always amazes me how a job can do that.

This post is, instead, about NaNoWriMo.

No matter how much art I do, how many videos I (try to) make, or how many photographs I take, writing is still my preferred form for expressing myself creatively. I love stories. It’s still I binge watch boxsets, and go to the cinema (almost) every week. It’s why I listen to friends talking about themselves so much. It’s why I read as much as I can (which I’m more inclined to do now that I’m back getting busses across the city in the morning and evening). Writing lets me take that love of stories and turn it into something. A comic script. A poem. A short story. A novel.

Or, in the case of this year’s NaNo novel: Interaction Fiction.

I’ve never written interactive fiction before, but it’s been a preferred form of gaming for me for a long time; it’s rare to find a game that’s actually interactive, where the ending is determined by your choices, your failures and your successes. (Heavy Rain is actually amazing for that, and I had a near-perfect ending until I messed it all up in the last couple of scenes.)

My novel is going to be less of a roll-the-die book and more of a try-to-die story. Failure, to an extent, is encouraged, and often unavoidable. The book is built around a character who features only very slightly in my last book, A Death in the Family. The man, Kurt Crane, cannot die. Not in the traditional sense, in which someone remains dead. He comes back. Every time. And the book, in being built around him and that little quirk of his, is his prison cell.

Or, more accurately, a Murder Dungeon.

I’ve been throwing the phrase around online a bit over the past few weeks. The Murder Dungeon is complete, now, with a floor plan and a spreadsheet and a backstory. And a name – the name of the book: The Necrohall. Only a handful of people have seen the floor-plan. Eventually it may end up on a t-shirt.

The actual artefact of it, though, serves as both a helpful guide for the writing process, and a motivator. It screams, ‘This is what you have created, an impossible building of terror and pain and death; bravo.’ Making the floor-plan as I planned my book – and I always plan my novels, because to do otherwise would be to drive myself yet-more insane than I already am – helped me become more and more excited about the book, and the books to follow. Stories are weaving through my head, tying the individual narrative threads into one deadly noose.

NaNoWriMo feels like a long way away from where I’m sitting. 11 days from a 30-day challenge is an eternity. (Conversely, 11 days off a 30-day challenge is like lying down for a nap and waking up immediately, but hours later. You don’t see the time go.)

I’ll try to write something else in the meantime, while preparing for events and attending a couple between now and the first weekend in November. I’ve the Geek Mart tomorrow, DECAF on October 30th, and Cosmic Rebels on November 4th and 5th. I’ll also be packing a keyboard with me for my lunches in work for the duration of NaNoWriMo.

Hopefully, my novel will be less rambling than this post. Hopefully I’ll finish. Hopefully you’ll join me. And hopefully I’ll get to share the Murder Dungeon with the world some time after I’ve worked out all the kinks, brutally murdered Kurt Crane a few dozen times, and made sure all the bloody little pieces fit together. Maybe after that, I can reassemble my own sense of sanity. But where’s the fun in that?

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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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