It’s Friday again! Time for a bit of Friday Fiction, courtesy of Madison Woods. Do take a look at her page if you’d like to see a huge variety of other interpretations of the picture prompt below. I was feeling philosophical today, so here’s my take on the picture. Not so much a story as a moment in time. I’d love to hear what you think.
Forbidden fruit, nestled among spiky vines, they glow red and bulbous, fit to burst with sweet juice, which makes me salivate at the very thought. Like so many chances, they exist in this idyllic state for only a single moment. Yesterday, they were not quite ripe. Tomorrow they will be gone, stolen away by eager beaks, claws or my siblings’ hands. Or mother will have sullied them with permissibility – with sugar, pectin, or the heat of an oven and a crumble topping.
Only today can I be sure of the perfect delight of a stolen raspberry, straight from the bush.
Thanks to Inspiration Monday from BeKindRewrite, it’s time for another short piece. This time I used their phrase “Falling Up The Stairs” and I genuinely intended that to be what the piece was about, but somewhere along the way it morphed on me and I was left with it being about “Falling Upstairs” which is not really the same at all. Sorry!
Anyway, in addition, I’ve been reading about POV for narration, and one of the things that always crops up is the question of “Second Person” narrations (those which address the reader directly, as “you”). It’s something I could write an entire post about, and might sometime. For now, let’s just say I decided to use it for this piece. I’d love to hear how you feel about the story as a whole, and that aspect in particular.
Whoops! You didn’t expect that, did you? Ha, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, isn’t that what they say? Well, this was hardly an inquisition. Just a bit of embarrassment, and a sudden jolt of pain, I suppose I should be fair and give you that.
Yesterday, some kid at work head-butted the wall. Really hard. She looked a bit shocked but she didn’t cry. You’d think she would have, she was only three or four years old, and the way you cried out… Well, she didn’t. At least, not until after I had turned away. Didn’t want an audience, you see.
But you like an audience, don’t you, my dear? You like that your yelp brought me running. So quiet now? I suppose you have got your way, what else is there to say?
I’d have come anyway. I heard you falling upstairs from where I was, in the kitchen. Making you a nutritious lunch. But you called anyway. Had to be sure. Well, here I am. Dutiful wifey, at your bedside night and day, tending to your every need for – how long now? Two years? Wow, it feels like a lifetime.
Of course, you’re at your own bedside now. Maybe I should step over you and climb into your place. When you’re able to stand, you can make me something to eat and mix up my medications. I could lie here and groan occasionally, just to prove I’m still insisting on staying alive. But I won’t, will I?
Here, take my arm and we’ll get you back into the bed. I need you to help, dear, don’t just lie there floppy. Come on. What’s that on the carpet? It’s wet. Did you knock your drink? It’s dark like blackcurrant. But you had milk this morning, didn’t you? And it’s still there on the side. So what is the red?
Your head, honey. It’s on your hair. Oh my darling man. Are you OK? Talk to me! Talk to me!
Language is based on agreed interpretations; nothing else. If we all agree that “aarple” means “to nod one’s head vigourously in agreement,” then that is what it will mean to us. Which is why language is always evolving, with text-speak, modern catchphrases, and foreign words changing the landscape all the time.
In addition, we’ve all seen those email / facebook forwards which demonstrate the brain’s ability to read words that are basically nonsense: Can you udresntnad tihs, for emxpale? Oar evan this won? The brain is clever, which is why the odd spelling or grammar mistake won’t prevent comprehension.
But I’m sorry, I can’t help it. I was raised to be a perfectionist on language, and these things matter to me. When I read something with spelling errors or laziness, it pulls me up short. It distracts me from the story, it makes me question the person who wrote it or the publication which let it go by. I don’t mean the odd typo; we all make those and however meticulously you proofread, they are elusive little fellows which sneak under the radar. I also don’t mean the UK/US English niggles I’ve grumbled about here before – once I recognise the origin of the writing, I would no more correct someone’s US English to UK than I would “correct” their French to English spellings. And I am aware that these things come more easily to some people than others.
I’m refering to things which make it clear that the writer never bothered to learn the nuts and bolts of their own language, couldn’t care less where an apostrophe goes or that “there” and “their” mean totally different things.
When I was in school, all exams including a “SPAG” mark, even in non-language subjects. If your spelling, punctuation and grammar were less than perfect, you could lose up to maybe 5% of the total mark, even if you had made yourself understood. These days, some education systems and educators are leaning in favour of “understanding” being all that matters, and certainly that is the principal purpose of language. But our use of language also says a lot about us, and people are listening to that too.
Now, if it were just me who thought like this, spelling wouldn’t matter. I could justifiably be ignored. But it’s not just me. There is a great body of us, and many of the nitpickers are in positions of power and influence. Between us, we could make the difference between a newspaper being a best-seller and a flop, we can elect or defeat politicians and, on a more personal level, we can reject job applicants on the basis of mistakes in their covering letter and novel submissions because we scanned the first page and found it too frustrating to continue.
Like so many things, the details of language are easiest to learn in school, and stick best when learnt at a young age. Even if they don’t really matter at that stage, we need to make them appear to, so that when they really do, they come as second nature.
Another story courtesy of Madison Wood’s photo below. Please let me know what you think – I thrive on criticism of my writing, so don’t hold back if there’s something you think I could do better or change.
For those who wanted to see the expanded version of last week’s Knight Returns story, please click here. Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Mike’s across already. Longer legs? Better balance? Or just more confidence. I’m still teetering on the first stone. The stream rushes beneath me in torrents barely six inches deep. I could just wade over, but there are stepping stones for a reason.
I prise one foot from the rock it’s melded to, then a dragonfly lands on the next stone and I am unable to move again. He’s so tiny, he straddles a rock that will barely hold my toes. Reassurance, or a dare? I don’t know, but as he takes flight, I fly with him: safely across the stream.
Time for another place to place your stories, for the writers out there. This time, an online magazine recommended to me by a friend recently as not only producing quality work, but also a wide range of different formats. Even if you’re not a writer or you’ve got nothing to submit right now, I’d recommend taking a look at the magazine.
Narrative Magazine (click on the logo above to make your way over there) publishes online, completely free and open to anyone who wants to read it. They have poetry, fiction and non-fiction sections and all make for great reading. If you enjoy what you find, they encourage a donation of $10 to help cover their costs but that’s entirely optional. There are submission fees for writers, but they pay pretty well for accepted work.
Their diversity is one of their strengths for submissions too. These are all categories for which they accept submissions, along with brief details for each. I entered a few 6-word stories a few weeks ago, but I’m thinking I might take a crack at one of the longer options soon too. as ever, if you submit (and especially if you are successful) do share your news!
General Submissions (pretty much anything!)
Spring 2012 Story Contest (Up to 15,000 words, fiction or non-fiction in pretty much any style. Deadline 31 July. Entry fee $22, 13 prizes up to $2500 first prize)
Fourth Annual Poetry Contest (Any length, up to 5 poems per submission. Deadline 17 July. Entry fee $20, 13 prizes up to $1500 first prize)
Book-length Works forThe Narrative Library (Full length books for publication in whatever format they decide, including hardback and e-book. Accepted all year round. Reading fee of $45)
Story of the Week (Up to 10,000 words, fiction or non-fiction. All year round. Submission fee $22. $150 paid upon publication, plus top billing and a chance to be one of the top 5 Stories of the week chosen each year for an extra $400.)
Poem of the Week (Enter up to 5 poems per submission, any length and style. All year round. Submission fee $16. $25-50 paid upon publication, plus as above for Story of the week at $200 for top 5)
iStory (Up to 150 words, fiction or nonfiction. All year round. Submission fee $22. $250 paid for chosen stories.)
Six-Word Stories (The ultimate in short story! Up to 5 stories per submission. All year round. Submission fee $15. $50 paid for each story selected)
iPoem (Up to 150 words each, although prefered at less than 40. Up to 4 per submission. All year round. Submission fee $20. $50 paid for each poem selected)
Cartoons and Graphic Stories (Up to 20 cartoons or a graphic story of any length per submission. All year round. Submission fee $20. Payment varies by size and style)
Photography (Photo essays and portfolios of up to 20 photos. All year round. Submission fee $20. Payment varies by length and nature)
Readers’ Narratives (Essays up to 1500 words on the environment in which readers find themselves. Open all year round. There is no submission fee and no payment upon publication, but it’s another way to get your work published and your name known, so check it out.
They also have an annual $4,000 prize awarded for the best thing they’ve published that year from a new and emerging writer, called the Narrative Prize.
On Friday, I posted a short story for Friday Fictioneers. I’d had difficulty cutting it down and although the short version proved popular, I wanted to write and post the longer one too. It’s still only 303 words, so hardly long, but a bit lengthy of the Fictioneers. Now I can’t decide which version I prefer.
You can see the original post, together with the link to Madison’s site and the picture which inspired it here. The longer version follows. As ever, i’d love to know what you think.
The Knight Returns
There was a time when the world was covered with forest, its paths cut by passing feet, its trees hideouts for outlaws and magicians. Back then, I was a bold knight on a gallant steed, and I ran through the trees staging epic battles and slaying dragons, rescuing my sister from whatever doom I had imagined for her that day.
Coming back to it, I find that the forest has grown small. It is bounded, now, by a housing estate on two sides, by an electricity substation to the North and a field of grazing sheep to the East. Back then, it stretched for miles, now I can walk across it in just a few minutes.
The world didn’t change, but I did. I left the forest, and discovered the adult world, where the paths are laid by machines and the trees have been replaced by concrete hideouts for a different kind of villain. The adult world is a dull one; our dragons more real but less vivid than those of childhood. I fight them every day, but I never slay one like I did as a boy. My victories are not the triumphs of fantasy, only the minor attainments of drudgery.
So I stand at the bottom of a forest path, a greying man in a grey suit with a greyer life. But I can hear a distant sound in the trees. I feel the stirrings of valour in my chest. And so, for this one day, I will draw my sword. For this one day, I will mount my steed and I will ride into the fray. Others may see a grown man playing like a child, but I will see the world as it used to be. And for this one day, I will be the bold knight once more.
I’m a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan. I love a good plot twist, and his skill is not just in creating them, but in the delivery. In an article I read today from Writer’s Digest, a good plot twist was described as:
Inevitable (in retrospect, the only possible ending to that scene, act or story)
An escalation of what preceded it
A revelation that adds meaning to what already occurred.
Once you’ve made a name for yourself as a master of the twist, this can be a hard one to pull off. Canny viewers start hunting out the twists, and trying to spot them before the “reveal”. This has the negative side-effect that they are no longer really enjoying the story, because they are busy looking at the mechanics. It’s a bit like a theatre technician going to see a play – they end up ignoring what’s happening onstage because they are too busy looking at the lighting rig or trying to work out how a particular effect is produced.
Even so, the best plot twists are unexpected, either because the audience didn’t see a twist coming at all, or because they didn’t realise it would be this particular twist.
This is the beauty of the best plot twists. In retrospect, you see all the clues and signs which told you that this was the only possible answer. It makes you want to re-read the book or re-watch the movie. It makes you see things you had subconsciously already seen.
3. An escalation
Twists don’t work if they are anti-climaxes. It’s why the “it was all a dream” ending is so hard to pull off. You’ve built up a lot of tension and excitement for your readers; they don’t want a let-down at the end, they want resolution.
4. A revelation that adds meaning
I’m less persuaded about this – in many ways it’s a corollary to 2 and 3. The twist must add more, and must explain what went before. But it should also be in keeping with theme and direction of the rest of the story. It must satisfy the questions raised consciously or subconsciously in the reader’s head.
I love to write twists, but they certainly aren’t easy. Combining that sense of inevitability with the need for unpredictability is the key problem. You have to leave a trail of clues, but different readers will view them differently. Some readers will jump straight in with the first couple of clues and say that the ending was obvious; others will trip over the clues, be upset by them, but assume that they are just bad writing and be annoyed; others still will miss them altogether. When it comes to the reveal, those same three categories of people are likely to think that the reveal is (respectively) unnecessary, uninteresting and a shock.
It’s impossible as the writer to really critique one’s own balance on this question – you already know the ending, so all clues stand out to you as a big red flashing arrow. You can’t please everyone all the time, and I’m tempted to feel that if a random group of readers has a smattering of each of the above, with the rest of the group liking the twist, you’ve probably got it about right. But I’m not sure, and I’m still practising.
Maybe I should go and watch The Sixth Sense again, and pretend it’s research!
I had a tough time with this story. I had about 500 words worth to say for this character, and really struggled to get at 100 of them with any resonance. I hope it worked for you – I’d love to hear what you think. Also, if you have time and inclination to read more, I wrote a story yesterday with two endings, and I’d love it if you could drop back and tell me which you prefered.
The Knight Returns
There was a time when the world was covered with forest, its paths cut by passing feet, not machines. Back then, I was a bold knight, and I ran through the trees slaying dragons, rescuing my sister from whatever doom I had imagined that day.
The world didn’t change, but I did.
But the adult world is a dull one; our dragons more real but less vivid. For this one day, I will draw my sword, I will mount my steed, and I will ride into the fray. For this one day, I will be the bold knight once more.
Another Thursday, another story from a BeKindRewrite prompt. Thoughts, feedback and suggestions are always welcome. In particular, I had two possible endings for this story. I’ll put them both below, so you can choose your own. I’d love to know which you prefer.
The Unanswered Phone
The phone rings, but I don’t want to answer it. The day is going too well. Good things have been happening and the slightest change could be a balance in karma – the catastrophe that brings it all crashing down. I know I’m being irrational. I know it’s probably just someone selling newspaper subscriptions or wanting to sell my house. Or give me a “free” cruise if I only hand over my credit card details and billing address. I know all that.
It could even be something good – although how much good news can one person possibly have in a day? My share has already been vastly exceeded by a pink line on a white stick and then I got a Free Coffee coupon in the bottom of my cereal box. Ok, the coffee wasn’t much, but it’s just not going to get better after that morning, is it?
The fifth ring seems unnecessarily insistent, as though the caller is getting impatient, as though they know I’m here, listening but not moving. The fifth ring is accusatory. I almost break my resolve and stand up, but then it stops and there is no sixth ring.
I am instantly filled with remorse. Perhaps it was something good after all, and by ignoring it I’ve done exactly what I wanted to avoid doing – I’ve filled that karmic void and let badness into my life. Perhaps by ignoring the phone, I’ve missed the chance to win a real cruise, or buy the perfect house. Perhaps it was my husband, desperate for help, having been hit by a bus and wanting to say a final goodbye, or the hospital to say that Mum’s been taken ill and I need to hurry over.
I get up now and go over to it. It’s too late. There are no more rings and the stupid answering machine is unplugged because I got fed up of deleting pointless messages from computerised dialers. Whoever rang, I will never know, never have a chance to get that call back. I bash at the buttons, but can’t remember which one, if any, checks the last caller.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ENDING #1
I resolve to call my husband, but he is probably in a meeting and I will be disturbing him. I can hardly explain that I’m calling in case he’s dead. I think about phoning Mum, but it would just worry her. And I can’t tell either of them about the baby, not like this.
I sit down, cradling the handset as I will one day cradle my newborn, and I wait for it to ring again.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ENDING #2
Eventually, I call my husband. I want to be sure he isn’t dead. He’s going to think I’m crazy – maybe I am – but it’s the only way I’m going to be able to relax. My hand shakes as I press the numbers – I want to know he’s alive, but I don’t want to know if he’s dead. I want to hang onto this moment for a little longer, yet this moment is terrifying. I want to hold onto the moment earlier when I was happy, before the phone rang.
It starts to ring.
Would I keep the baby? How could I raise a baby on my own? How could I get rid of my husband’s baby after he dies? Of course I would keep it. But how could I raise a baby on my own?
Pick up, dammit! My brain is screaming now, desperate for him to answer. The fifth ring isn’t loud enough. If he’s dead, no ring would be loud enough anyway. Is he there, ignoring me? Is he worried the phone might ruin a happy morning? He was so happy about the baby, maybe he’s avoiding the phone like I did.
Actually, the title’s a little ridiculous. I’ve got a wonderful husband, family and friends, so I have the privilege of feeling loved every day. But this week is particularly special, against that context.
THE COMMENTATOR AWARD
First, Stacey Plowright nominated me for The Commentator Award. Like the Versatile Blogger Award, this is a peer award for bloggers to recognise each other’s contributions to the blogosphere. This time, to thank those who have left kind, helpful or -for whatever reason- good comments on the awarder’s blog. It recognises that one of the key aspects of blogging is the interaction we get from comments, but for me, it’s also a chance to say a big Thank You to all the commenters who take the time to critique my writing. I’m a better writer thanks to you all, and to these few in particular. (If you’ve been nominated before, or just don’t want to carry this on, feel free not to.)
My first two nominees, I chose for their helpful critique comments on my Friday Fiction, but also on my other posts the rest of the week. It’s great to know that I’m provoking interest and comments even outside the Fictioneers main event! Thanks, Rich and Brian
Doug is one of my most consistent and generous commentators on Fridays. I have sometimes teased him for never saying anything constructive, but he was one of the first Fictioneers to welcome me to the group, and I look forward to his generous praise anyway. If he ever comes up with critique, I will certainly know he means it!
Sandra gets the prize for Most Helpful Suggestion ever! Commenting on a piece I wrote about a small rodent’s view of the world, she came up with the perfect title, Ragondin.
Finally, a real-life commentator, whose critiques of my work are detailed and invaluable. Sam is a member of one of my writing groups, and I always enjoy his work as well as his comments on mine. As well as writing, he’s a fantastic artist – both skills are on display online.
** If you want to carry on the award, pick up to 10 people, nominate them in a blog post and let them know you’ve done it, and please mention me for giving you the award.
CANADA’S READERS DIGEST
The second reason I’m feeling loved comes from a less personal source – this esteemed publication in Canada. A few weeks ago, I submitted a handful of shorts from my “Friday Fiction” collection to this magazine and I am ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED to share the news that two of them (including Ragondin mentioned above) have been accepted. More news on publication dates and details in the future, but for now, a whoop of joy and a celebratory dance!