29 January, 2013

Handrails and Parachutes


At the beginning of the month, I was happy to report I'd won the Speakeasy Short Story Competition with my "psychodrama", Handrails and Parachutes. At the time I was expecting it to be published on the competition website. However, as it hasn't turned up yet and so many people have asked to read it... here it is. There are many edits I would make now, but in the spirit of honesty, I've left it exactly how it was when it won the competition.


Handrails and Parachutes

    Three hundred feet below them a single car speeds its way northwards. Lining the strip between road and river, traffic lights change from red to green and back to red again. The tide is low. Even in this, the darkest hour of the night, the lights from the city illuminate the sloping mud flats oozing their way down to the water.

    When she squeezes his hand, he looks down into a face radiant with possibility.

    “Are you ready, Leo? Shall we do it?”

    It has all converged to this point. Every toss of the coin and roll of the dice has led to this edge, this dizzying view into the gorge. Perhaps he should’ve known it would. Perhaps the signs had been there the first night he met her. In the pulsing, sweating club he should’ve felt the pull of fate, dragging him closer and closer until this moment where his toes brush the void beyond the crumbling cliff edge.

    But he hadn’t known. When she’d struck up conversation at the bar he’d had no idea.


    “What star sign are you?”

    It wasn’t a question he’d been asked in Acid Attic before. Even in this bar at the back where it was possible to talk without screaming, he’d never got much further than first names.

    “My star sign?”

    “Yeah. When’s your birthday?”

    “August 8th.”

    “Makes sense.”

    She was tiny – barely five foot to his six and a half. Pale skin, green eyes, purple hair. No black mini-dress and sky-high heels, she was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, polka dots and stripes. Not his type at all.

    “Why does it make sense?”

    “You’re a Leo.” She paused, as if expecting him to understand. “You know – the lion: big, sort of handsome.” She tilted her head on one side. “Generous too, probably.”

    Despite his snort of laughter and his, “You don’t believe all that rubbish do you?” he’d found himself pulling out his wallet and paying for her drink.

    “Why shouldn’t I believe it?”

    “Because it’s superstitious crap.”

    “Probably.” She took a sip from her glass. “I’m nothing like my star sign.”

    “Why? What is it?”

    As she disappeared into the crowds he just caught her answer.

    “Virgo. The virgin.”

    It’d taken him an hour to find her again. She was sitting on the curb outside, smoking something that didn’t smell like a cigarette. He’d sat down next to her and she’d offered him a puff without speaking.

    “Why did you ask me all that stuff about star signs in there?”

    She took a long drag and blew the smoke upwards. Loops and spirals hung above them.

    “I liked the look of you. Wanted to know if we were compatible.”

    “And are we?”

    “Probably not. You’d do better with a Sagittarius, I need a Taurus or a Capricorn.”

    He shrugged. “I could try and be a Taurus if you want.”

    She laughed and took another puff before stubbing the roll-up on the pavement.

    “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

    “Then how does it work?”

    “Not sure it does.” She sighed and lay back, staring up at the haze of light pollution above them. “Virgos are meant to be control-freaks – order and details kind of people. That’s not me at all; I don’t believe in order.”

    “What do you believe in then?” He leant closer. “Chaos?”

    “I believe in destiny and living in the moment.” She propped herself up on her elbows so their faces were only inches apart. “I believe in Fate.”

    She’d said it with a capital F. Fate. Six months later as he stands looking down at the river, hand-in-hand with her, he remembers noticing that. Even half-drunk the word had sounded important, the name of a god.

    “So if Fate says you should come back to my flat with me, you’ll overlook that I’m a Leo?”

    “I never argue with Fate.”



    It is cold. The breeze rifles through his pockets and tugs at his t-shirt. She is shivering too. Her thin dress clings to her, showing off every curve and angle of her breakable body. He looks down at the road below again.

    “The ultimate test of Fate.” Her eyes are wide, as if they can’t bear to miss one photon of life. “The ultimate freedom, Leo.”

   “I don’t know, V.” He grips her hand tighter. “Is this really the right moment?”

    “If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here. But we are, so it must be.”

    Her logic – that flawed, beautiful logic – had been his undoing. From that first morning of bacon sandwiches and coffee made with milk past its best, he’d been captivated. For the first two days he’d been unable to even leave the flat; they’d talked, slept, had sex and philosophised until his head ached and he wanted her to leave and he felt like he would go crazy and he wanted her to stay more than ever.

    “If we always lived in the moment, we would never worry,” she had told him, and it’d sounded like a promise. “We’d never worry about tomorrow because it’s so many moments away it might as well be a different life altogether.”

    “But then we’d never make any decisions at all.”

    “Course we would!” She’d bounced up from under the duvet, his old Bon Jovi t-shirt hanging off one shoulder. “No decision would ever be hard again, because the only thing that would matter is what we wanted in that moment.”

    “So if I wanted a bacon sandwich, I would have one and not worry about whether there was enough bacon left for tomorrow?”

    He’d laughed, but she had only nodded.

    “Exactly. Living any other way is a compromise.”

    “But what if I do want a bacon sandwich tomorrow?”

    “Then you buy more bacon.”

    She allowed herself to be pulled back down under the covers.

    “That’s a crazy way to live.”

    “It’s the only sane way. What if you spent years sacrificing everything to get your dream job and then got there to find you hated it, or were crap at it, or you had terminal cancer? It would be such a waste.

    “We never let life just happen, Leo. We give it handrails and parachutes and emergency exits. We’re too afraid to take off our seatbelts. I don’t want that.”

    Laughing and arguing into the night, she had worn him down. She never mentioned leaving. He never asked her to go.

    On Monday he’d tried to go to work. He really had.

    “Heads or tails, Leo?” She grinned at him over her mug. “One to go to work, the other to stay here with me.”

    “You can’t be serious?”

    “Why not? I thought you agreed with me about Fate. Or was that just a line to get me into bed?”

    “I do agree.” He found his car keys and began hunting for his wallet. “And as I recall, you didn’t take much persuading.”

    “Prove it.” She raised an eyebrow. “Heads you go, tails you stay.”

    How he found himself agreeing, he would never quite know. And why, when the coin flipped on to tails, he didn’t laugh it off and go anyway, he couldn’t later recall. Perhaps it was because he knew that if he went to work, she would not be there when he came home.

    Every day the coin came down tails he told himself that it didn’t matter, he would go to work anyway. And every time, he didn’t. Sometimes Fate was on the side of common sense and would flip to heads three days in a row, and he’d leave her watching television as he disappeared to battle the rush hour.  But not often. Not often enough.

    It was simpler once he had no job to go to; easier to give Fate free-reign. As soon as she’d convinced him that the rent would either pay itself or it wouldn’t, he relaxed. She was right, of course. She was right about everything.

    The roll of the dice became their consultant, the draw of a card from the pack their financial advisor. The colour of the first car they saw when they opened the curtains, or the number of people that passed the cafĂ© window dictated where they went, what they did, whether they ate like kings or beggars. And they were lost. Virgo and Leo: incompatible, inseparable, hostages to nothing but chance and each other. Every moment was there to be lived: sucked-in, spat-out and discarded for the next. Fate was their god.



    “What if Fate’s wrong?”

    A gust of wind catches him off-guard and he clutches at the rusty railings behind them with his free hand.

    “Fate can’t be wrong.”

    “Then maybe we are.” He is beginning to feel giddy. “What if we’re meant to be getting married in Vegas right now, or trekking in Peru? We could’ve taken the wrong turning, V.”

    She is looking disappointed. He has disappointed her.

    “So what? If we made the wrong decision yesterday, or last week, or even that first time we met, it doesn’t matter. Those moments are past, aren’t they?” She pulls her hand from his and folds her arms. “There is only this moment, Leo. You can only live in this one.”

    “Or die in it.”

    Somewhere in the city an ambulance is wailing. Two lorries, driving too close together, thunder by below.

She turns to face him and he feels the tug of her convictions.

    “You can’t die in the moment you’re in,” she says. “Maybe in the next moment you’ll be dead, or the moment after that perhaps, but that’s not your problem. You can only choose what to do now. No handrails. No parachutes.”

    Nausea rises in his stomach. He needs to step back from the edge, climb back over the railing. But he is trapped by his addiction; by her.

    “How can we do anything, unless we do this?” She reaches for him again, wrapping her arms around his waist. “We aren’t really trusting in Fate unless we know that She wants us to be alive. Once we know that, imagine how free we’ll be. We’ll know that Fate has picked us out to live. She’s chosen us.”

    He is nodding before he has even processed her words. Isn’t this what he wants? Isn’t it what their religion demands?

    She holds up one clenched fist in front of them, palm up. Slowly, as if performing some rite of worship she uncurls her fingers. The two-pence coin has left marks where the edges dug into her flesh.

    “Heads or tails?”

    The coin loops upwards, flipping over and over in slow-motion. And as each rotation catches the light, it seems to reflect another step, another stopping point on the inevitable journey that brought them to this edge.

    Flip.

    At first they had been content with the smallness of life. Diamonds, we watch a movie.

    Flip.

    Spades, we go to the pub. But it hadn’t been enough. Fate was not a game fuelled by minutiae.

    Flip.

    It was an extreme sport which could not contain them. They always needed more; life in fast forward. Clubs, we jump the train tracks.

    Flip.

    Hearts, we go 100 on the bypass. Odds we leave without paying. Evens we catch the first flight we see.

    Flip.

    Heads or tails, Leo? Heads or tails? Heads? Tails?

    Flip.

    This was the only place it could’ve ended. Yes, he should have known.

    She snatches the coin from mid-air. Right hand slaps down on to the back of left.

    “Heads, we jump. Tails, we go home. Right?”

    She removes her right hand and lifts the oracle for him to see.

    Tails.

    He vomits. Chicken tikka, cheap beer. Sour and acidic. Without waiting for her, he climbs back over the railing, huddles down against it, hands and jeans stained with rust.

    She is laughing. She turns her back to the edge, looking down on him from the wrong side of the barrier; life pouring out of her.

    “See?” She raises her hands in the air, throws back her head to the night. “Fate wants us to live. Don’t you feel free, Leo? Don’t you feel alive?”

    And in that moment, he knows that she really believes it. Before she slips – before the rocks crumble away under her feet and her hands just fail to grab the railing in time – she believes completely in her god. And she is completely free.


ENDS

25 January, 2013

It's THAT Word Again

When I finished writing my novel, The Art of Letting Go, I wrote a little blog post about word frequency. Now I have finished writing my novel again (for the fourth, or is it fifth time?), and have sent it back to my agent with an e-mail along the lines of "I have no idea if I'm making it better or worse anymore", it's word cloud time again! So, at the request of Derek, here is a word cloud showing word frequency in my novel:

Word Cloud made on the fabulous wordle.net


Frankly, all this really shows is that I have ONE character called ROSEMARY and one called BEN, who LIKE to KNOW and THINK about SOMETHING a lot of the TIME. What it doesn't show is the effort I put in to reduce the frequency of the words JUST (success!) and LIKE (less success, but it used to be the biggest word by miles!) It also doesn't show my most grossly overused and hidiously abused word of all:


That is a very common word - hence why it is excluded from word cloud software. However, that doesn't mean it's OK to use it willy nilly as I do. Every time I go through my manuscript, I remove a handful of thats. Every. Time. A couple of weeks ago I did my final (ha ha!) edit and must have removed at least 30 of the offending thats. I was casually checking over just the first three chapters today - about 5700 words in all - and had to remove another four of the little blighters. I was thinking of posting about this anyway, when Derek mentioned to me that he struggles with thats as well. Anybody else find 'that' littering their work?

The general rule with that is to check if your sentence makes sense without it. If it does, leave it out! Here are some examples of innocent-looking sentences with rogue thats.

  • I was sure that he'd think me very silly.
  • If I didn't know that it was impossible, I'd have said that she was teasing me. (Twice in one sentence!)
  • He said that he wanted to go to London.

Watch out for THAT, kids! He's and sneaky little thing... Which words clutter up your otherwise tight and beautifully-crafted prose?



    22 January, 2013

    Information is Beautiful

    You may have heard of the fabulous Information is Beautiful before. It is a wonderful place where lists and ideas and statistics are, well, made beautiful. Their graphs and other "infographics" pop up all over the internet. I can waste hours on their website looking at their images. I absolutely love them. Data and pretty things - my perfect combination.

    Some of their graphics are really detailed and extensive, others are very simple. They are sometimes employed to make them for a specific reason. For example, the picture on this post is of the graphic they did to win a competition for helping people understand their blood tests in the USA. Potentially life-saving work.

    One of their projects I came across recently is this beautiful representation of the books everyone should read. Go on, click the link, it'll open in a new window. (I don't want to post a picture of it here as the whole fabulous enterprise is funded by people buying their images, except the ones - as in this post - which they allow people to use for free.) On the face of it, it's quite simple - a word cloud of popular books. But the data analysis that has gone into the production is incredible.

    Basically, they searched through tonnes of lists of books to put together the ones that come up most frequently - the definitive list, if you like. The more times a books appeared in their search, the bigger its name is in the cloud. So, by the looks of it, the book we all absolutely have to read above all others is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Other big hitters are The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Crime and Punishment and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

    I love that this list is one person's bias, or even a public vote, but pulls in information from so many sources. Of course nobody's going to like all those books, but it's fascinating to see the ones that come up time and time again. Their sources (full list on the graphic) include:
    • UK most borrowed library books
    • Desert Island Disc choices
    • Oprah's book club
    • Pulitzer Prize winners
    • Booker Prize winners
    • various polls and lists of must-read books produced by newspapers and others
    • goodreads.com

    I'm still creating my own list of must-read books, and I still need your help. If you have suggestion of a book I have to read before I die, pop it in the comments, or click on the Books tab at the top. Thanks!

    15 January, 2013

    The Death of the Professional Writer?


    It's easy to be gloomy about the state of the publishing world when you read articles such as this one from the BBC, under the headline: 'Sales of Printed Books Slump in 2012'. The article tells me that physical book buying is down nearly 5%. And although this is off-set by people buying more digital books, those digital copies are cheaper. "People are buying more books but are paying less for them". I wonder what this will mean for the writers of the future?


    There's no point being anti-digital books. They aren't just coming, they have arrived. I'm convinced, however, too many people love physical books too much for paper copies to die out completely. The figures may have "slumped", but people still spent over £1.5bn on physical books last year. This is not the death of books. But will it be the start of the slow death for professional writers? When books are sold this cheaply will anybody be able to make a living from writing fiction? And does it matter if the answer is no? I'm not sure.

    Most writers produce their first novel at weekends, while working a nine-to-five during the week. So maybe it doesn't matter if nobody ever has the money to turn professional. But the trouble is, there would be professionals. But those professionals would be the people who don't need an income. Maybe writing novels would become the prerogative of the rich. And producing one book while working a day job is one thing; trying to do it for several decades is another. Think of how many great books wouldn't get written because the author didn't have time.

    I found some things to be cheerful about in this article - people buying more books, cheap or not, can't be a bad thing, right? But of all the statistics that made me sigh, the ones relating to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy were the most disappointing:
    • The first novel in the trilogy is now the best-selling novel in the United Kingdom OF ALL TIME. 
    • The value of sales across the whole trilogy last year was £47.3million - beating J.K. Rowling's record sales figures from the year the last Harry Potter book was released. 
    • The Fifty Shades trilogy made up 5% of all physical book sales last year.

    How embarrassing. We are a country with a great literary tradition - from William Shakespeare to Agatha Christie and Ian Rankin, Charles Dickens to Jasper Fforde and Zadie Smith. I am dreading having to tell my potential future children that the biggest publishing phenomenon in my lifetime was a series of erotic novels that were generally criticised for being of a low literary standard, badly written and poorly researched.

    Whether or not we have professional writers in the future, what every generation needs is good stories. Well-written, entertaining, thought-provoking, beautiful stories.

    So, cheer me up. What are the best books you've read by a British author in the last year? Who are this generation's writers who will carry the flag for beautiful writing? Who am I going to tell my future children about with pride?

    11 January, 2013

    The Book... by Freya Morris

    Continuing my occasional series of guest posts on life-changing books, Freya Morris tells us about...

     The Book... that shaped my faith.

    Find it here on amazon!
    Somewhere on the vast moors of my teen-hood, Dad handed me a book and said, ‘read it’. Now, this might seem  pretty normal to the average person, but we Morrises aren’t normal people. My dad has never told me to read a specific book - ever. He would talk about books, sure. He would maybe hand me one and say, ‘good read’. Or he’d tell us: ‘you lot don’t read enough’. But he has never, ever, ever, told me to read a single book.

    Even though a teenager at the time, I was a Christian girl and wasn’t particularly rebellious… yet. The desire not to read it because he told me to never materialised, and quite casually, I read it: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I didn’t expect it to have a fundamental impact on me for the rest of my life.

    How it inspired my words:
    The book is a fantasy, but there was more truth in that fantasy then in any non-fiction I’ve ever read. So it’s not a surprise that when I write, I find myself lingering into another world because reality more often than not seems unreal, too 2D. The 3D world lies beneath the skin, and to reveal that to the world we have to break out of the boundaries, our limitations.

    How it inspired my life:
    In only 150 pages, Lewis opened my eyes. It suddenly occurred to me that the things I struggled with in my faith were actually constructs of religion. The concept of Hell as we’ve come to know it didn’t fit with my relationship with God as love. Heaven and Hell was a human construct, not a godly one.

    Lewis also opened my brain. Ever since reading this book, I’ve always questioned every concept, image, biblical word, or controversy ever to touch Christianity or my ethics. And because of Lewis, I was able to rebuild my faith around God, not religion. It took me on a difficult path, but it has built my belief on something so much stronger. Whether Jesus had a wife, was black, Asian or white, doesn’t really bother me. Lewis started me on a journey where no-one can shake my faith in the God of love.

    That is why, when I have kids, I’ll be passing them only one book (probably the same tattered, falling apart version my dad gave me) and telling them: ‘Read it.’


    Thanks, Freya. I was so excited to receive this post as I was given The Great Divorce for Christmas - I can't wait to read it now! His logical, humble faith makes C.S Lewis one of my heroes and I love his books - fiction, allegory and non-fiction.

    Have you read any C.S. Lewis? Which is your favourite Narnia story or character? (I always loved Reepicheep!)

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    Freya Morris is a writer, communications officer and true bibliophile, who lives with her husband in Bristol. She has several pieces of flash fiction and non-fiction out there in the published world and has recently finished writing a Middle Grade novel. Her blog is pretty ace too.

    08 January, 2013

    The Next Big Thing...?

    Photo by chrissi at sxc.hu
    The splendid Dan Purdue has tagged me in this fun post that's been doing the rounds of writerly blogs recently. Dan is a prize-winning short story and flash fiction writer whose anthology of short fiction has been a welcome addtion to my bookcase. You can get a hard copy of Somewhere to Start From here, or if you're more modern than me and have one of those e-reader thingys, you can download it for about £1 here!

    I'm not sure whether I'm a good candidate for being The Next Big Thing, but this post exists as...

    ... a great way to network with fellow writers and to find out a bit more about what they're working on. The idea is fairly simple. You, the writer, answer a standard(ish) set of 10 questions on your blog one week then ask up to five other authors (whose work you like and you think might be The Next Big Thing) to answer the same questions the next week.”

    I was meant to answer these questions on Boxing Day, but that was never going to happen! So I am catching up now by telling you about my novel which I'm working on with my agent, David.

    What is the title of your book? 
     The Art of Letting Go. (The working title, for those who have been following my blog, was 'Thousand-Word Things').

    Where did the idea for the book come from? 
    I had three or four short stories which hadn't worked at all, but which each contained an idea or a character that I couldn't let go. So I decided to see if I could smash them together - not a recommended technique for plotting a book! Some of the main themes are things I think about a lot: faith, choices, how we end up leading the lives we do. Whereas the other big theme - art - is something I knew nothing about and had to do tonnes of research for.


    Which actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
    You'll have to help me here - I am so ridiculously rubbish at naming actors. I don't watch a huge amount of films or TV drama. Having said that, I've found my perfect male lead for my aritst, Ben. I'd choose Rufus Sewell, mainly for his startling eyes. You might know him from playing the villain in the film The Illusionist (or from playing the insane vicar in Parade's End, or Lucas Romer in Restless - both recent BBC dramas). He's a cracking actor.

    I'd love Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes from Downton Abbey) to play my main character, brusque physicist Rosemary, but she's a decade too young and would have to hide that beautiful Scottish accent. So maybe I should choose another of the stunning older female actors we have in this country... Nah, sod it, it's my book and I'm having Phyllis Logan if I want to!

    I'm sure there are any number of Hollywood sirens who could play my 20 year-old, Cheryl, but I'd like to stick with British actors. So, sticking to Downton Abbey also - as I say, I'm rubbish at thinking of actors - I'm going to call on Sophie McShera just because I think she's brilliant. The part she plays in DA (Daisy) is the polar opposite of Chery, but if she's as good an actor as I think she is, she'll manage. Oh, but she'll need a blonde wig. And to look seven or eight years younger than she is. Hmmm... if you can think of a better choice...

    I'm finding it hard to think of any 40-ish actresses out there to play my Jenny. Can you think of anyone who could play a middle-aged timid woman, who's a bit silly but has a strange kind of strength? Answers on a postcard (or in the comments section).

    What is the one sentence synopsis of your book? 
    A retired physicist finds herself drawn into the world of an abstract artist who's painting a picture of God, but the closer they get the harder it is to keep her dark secret, and the more obvious it becomes that he too is leading a life touched by madness.

    Will your book be self-published or published by an agency? 
    I really hope it will be traditionally published. Now I have an agent there is a better chance of that, but I know it's still by no means guaranteed. The thought of self-publishing scares me!

    How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 
    As it started as part of National Novel Writing Month - a month! But I don't count that as my proper first draft, more my draft zero. The first full draft took about three months. To get to the standard it was when my agent offered to represent me - another two full drafts later - took almost exactly a year from when I first thought of writing it.

    What other books would you compare 'The Art of Letting Go' within the genres? 
    I find this very hard to answer as it seems arrogant to compare my work to that of a published author! But I would say people who like books that aren't family sagas or romances but which are based around the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, might like it. Think Jodi Picoult perhaps, or The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

    Who or what inspired you to write the book? 
    I'm not entirely clear on how this question is different to the second question! But I started writing the book because I wanted to give myself a new challenge and I'd heard about NaNoWriMo (writing a novel in a month). So I thought I'd take part for fun. Then, I suppose, the characters themselves inspired me because I found once I'd started writing about them, even though what I'd written was awful, I couldn't give up on them, so I started again from scratch.

    What else about the book might pique a reader's interest? 
    Ummm... it's told from four different viewpoints which I hope gives it an interesting voice. It uses art as a way of exploring the truth behind the unreliable narration, with a potted history of abstract art woven into the plot as insight into what one of the characters is really thinking. Although it explores those universal themes of faith and purpose, it doesn't wrap everything up and put a bow on it at the end (that might pique interest or it might put some people off!).

    -------

    Hang on a minute... that's only nine questions. No idea what the tenth is meant to be. If you have a tenth question for me, pop it in the comments! 

    I'm pretty sure a lot of my blogging friends have done this post already (I can think of at least three or four), but if you haven't done so, then my nominations for people to look out for in the bookshops of the future are Suzi, Freya and Alice. There are others of course - agented and unagented - but these three spring to mind immediately as ones to watch! Take it away ladies...

    Thanks for reading!