Short story: First Contact

First Contact front page

I’ve written a kind of short prequel to Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer to put on the book’s website and possibly use for publicity purposes. I enjoyed writing it; it’s the first short story I’ve produced for a while (probably more than a year – I’m not even completely sure how long it’s been) and I’ve missed them. Novels are so time-consuming, but I hope I can get back to doing some more short fiction before too long.

Well here it is: First Contact.

 

 

All I want for Christmas

Book Christmas tree

Here’s a seasonal short story. Actually it’s a repeat – I first posted it last December but (1) this blog had far fewer followers then, so I figured more people might read it this time, and (2) to be honest I haven’t had a chance to write a new one, being stupidly busy in that traditional pre-Christmas way.

Anyway, I’ve just finished the third draft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer so I’m happy about that. A lot more still to do though, and my thoughts are turning to 2015 and what my priorities are going to be. But in the meantime, I wish you a very happy Christmas.

And here’s the story ….

All I want for Christmas I

knew there was something wrong about Mr Nicholas the moment I saw him. What happened next on that bitter Friday, six days before Christmas, only confirmed it.

I needed the money. Presents to buy. So when I saw the yellowing card hanging limply inside the door of Nicholas Toys – Help Needed – Apply Within – I didn’t think twice. I must have passed that mean, murky little shop a hundred times without really noticing it. Now it seemed to have sprung to some kind of life, its stringy fairy lights twinkling through the driving sleet.

Shivering as I pushed through the door, I somehow expected dust and gloom inside, but instead I was greeted by glaring neon light beating down from the ceiling. A sharp smell prickled the back of my throat – plastic, cheap cinnamon-spiced air freshener, and lurking somewhere beneath a faint acrid stench that reminded me of leaking batteries. And it was so cloyingly hot I was already peeling off my scarf and coat when he shuffled through a half-hidden doorway.

He must have been the oldest person I’d ever seen. Hunched like a question mark, his face so creased his wrinkles cast shadows. But his pale blue eyes focussed on me with keen attention.

‘Er … Mr Nicholas? I’ve come about the job …?’

He smiled thinly. ‘When can you start?’ His voice was a parched, wheezing whisper, like dead leaves in the wind.

Why he needed me I don’t know. The shop was deserted for two hours. Until, just before midday, the customer walked in. She might have been twenty-five or forty years old, it was hard to tell. Her face was blank and candle-white; mottled makeup fringed the purple ghost of a black eye. She scurried around the shop like a hunted mouse. Eventually she appeared again at the counter and spoke in my general direction.

‘Have you got the any Dizzy Dolls?’ she intoned in a defeated voice. I thought – you’re kidding, right? Dizzy Dolls were this year’s must-have toy, a random craze that had emptied shelves and warehouses across the country. Of course, in that perverse sheep-like mentality of human nature, its very scarcity had only sharpened the population’s desire. If there had ever been any in this shop, they’d have been put right in the window, the price marked up and gone within hours. If not minutes.

But I just smiled. ‘I’m afraid not, madam. Have you tried online …?’

She snorted. OK, I thought, dumb question.

I flinched as Mr Nicholas suddenly spoke from right beside me. ‘Can I help you madam?’

‘I need a Dizzy Doll,’ she whined. ‘My eldest doesn’t want anything else. I just have to get one.’

‘Then it’s your lucky day madam!’ The proprietor grunted as he reached behind the counter and hauled up a lurid, oversized pink-and-purple monstrosity of a box. And to my amazement, poking out through the top was the perfectly-groomed peroxide head of a Dizzy Doll, regarding me balefully with its plastic stare.

The woman gasped. ‘Oh … oh awesome!’ Then she glanced warily at me. ‘Is it genuine?’

It’s not the freaking Mona Lisa, I nearly said. But Mr Nicholas got in first. ‘Of course, madam. But it’s the last one left, mind. I don’t need to tell you …’

‘Oh …’ She looked slyly away. ‘You know, I’ve seen them on special offer on ebay. Half price …’

It was a ridiculous lie. But Mr Nicholas’ smile widened. ‘I understand, madam. We’ll match that price. But there is something else …’ While I wondered if he’d lost his mind, he produced a pen and a sheet of paper with some writing I couldn’t read. ‘The total cost is on this contract, madam. Just your signature required. And then it’s yours.’

‘Oh really?’ The woman wrinkled her nose and took the paper. She studied it; then looked up sharply. ‘Is this supposed to be funny?’

The old man actually grinned, baring yellowish but surprisingly straight teeth. ‘No joke madam. Just sign and this Dizzy Doll is yours. Imagine your little girl’s face on Christmas morning!’ But as he leant on the counter with affected nonchalance, he was betrayed by his wide, ravenous eyes. A born salesman after all, then. But what was on that contract? Maybe it was double the normal price, or even more?

The woman eyed him. Then looked back at the door and made a slight motion to leave. But when she turned back, her face was like the old man’s, shining with a bright and nauseous lust. She shrugged and signed the paper on the counter. ‘You’re crazy,’ she muttered, before grabbing the box and half-jogging from the shop.

When I turned back to Mr Nicholas, he was bowed down as if exhausted – but I saw on his shadowed face a deep, dreamy smile. As if he’d just made the sale of the year.

‘What was the price?’ I asked.

He looked up slowly. ‘High,’ he said, and gave a dry chuckle. ‘And what about you, Peter?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘What do you want? More than anything else?’

I tried to laugh. ‘I don’t have any kids. And I’m not really into toys myself …’

‘I deal in more than toys, Peter. A lot more. Sure, it’s one of my most … profitable areas. But I can get you anything. What do you want, Peter?’

‘Oh I, um …’ A volley of icy rain rattled the window pane and I glanced at the door. ‘Um … look, it’s lunch-time … do you mind if I take my break now …?’

He drew himself up; and for one insane moment I thought he might run across the shop and lock the door. I don’t know why I thought that. But he just nodded. ‘Of course. See you soon, Peter.’

Once outside, revived by the cold air, I tried to find her. I ran. But she’d gone.

I never went back to that shop.

Making short shorter: A Dramatic Way to Clear the Air

storm-cloud

A Dramatic Way to Clear the Air is a 1,000 word story – kind of boy-meets-girl in a thunderstorm. It started life as a longer, 1,500 piece that I wrote about a year ago. Given my recent enthusiasm for shorter / flash fiction, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to try to cut it down – losing one out of every three words – while maintaining the essence of the story.

So I did, and it wasn’t as hard as I’d first imagined. I had to go through it a few times to hack away all those 500 words, but it was surprisingly satisfying – and I really think the shorter version is better. It’s tighter, more direct, has fewer adjectives, adverbs and description, and yet I don’t think it really loses anything in terms of story or the characters.

Sometimes losing word count is a case of cutting unnecessary repetition or elaboration. Often things can be implied rather than explicitly states. One example – the sentence:

She peered ostentatiously at the clock, spidery black eyebrows raised almost out of sight.

… was originally followed by:

The words “you’re late” could not have been more clearly spoken if they had been flashed in blue neon across the walls.

I kind of liked that second sentence, but I concluded that it was basically superfluous. The fact that the woman in question thinks that Pete (the central character) is late for work is clearly implied in the first sentence – it doesn’t really need to be spelt out. So that second sentence was cut completely from the final version.

If you’re interested to compare, the original, 1,500-word version is here: A Dramatic Way to Clear the Air – long version

Finding the time to write

Businessman-juggling-alarm-clocks_300

I admire my fellow bloggers. Many of them seem to write regularly, read diligently, and still find time to post several times a week. I don’t know how they do it. Managing my time is a constant struggle for me. As well as my writing I think it’s important to keep reading Then there’s the full-time day job of course. I don’t want to short-change my wife or kids – they need and deserve my time. And I do like to eat. And if I don’t get enough sleep my brain starts to shut down pretty quickly.

(I shouldn’t complain too much of course. I’m well aware that I have many things to be grateful for.)

I’m always trying to think of more or better ways to squeeze more mileage from my days and weeks. I suppose motivation is a key factor – you do tend to find time for those things you’re really committed to. But the fact remains there are only so many minutes in a day.

And the conundrum doesn’t look like going away. Possibly just the opposite. Recently I read an article pushing the idea that self-published writers (and perhaps the ‘conventionally’ published too) needed to increase their output. That in order to raise their profile and win new readers, they would have to publish new work much more frequently, with perhaps two or three novels a year instead of just one.

And I thought – oh, terrific. It took me over two years to write two novels. If I’m to churn them out more often in future, what gives? My family? No. If quantity has to increase, I can see exactly what has to give: quality. I don’t want to go there. I want my writing to get better, not worse. And is that what we really need in the world of self-publishing – more quantity, less quality? Surely the opposite would be infinitely preferable?

I posted a comment on the article posing that very question. Sadly, there was no response.

Anyway, I’d be really interested to hear anyone else’s ideas about time management. I don’t have too many myself. A couple do spring to mind though.

The first isn’t terribly profound: less TV. I’ve never watched very much anyway, but as writing has become more important to me TV has seemed more and more a waste of precious time. I do like a few programmes though, and sometimes it’s just the ideal way to switch off and chill out.

The second is the only half-way sensible answer I can think of to the problem of maintaining (or increasing) output without sacrificing quality or sanity: short fiction. I’ve started to get into flash fiction more, particularly the 1,000 word variety (I find it hard to write a story much shorter than that). Writing these pieces keeps me in practice, and it’s nice to be able to produce and finish something that doesn’t take too long. Reducing the length enables me to concentrate on the quality, polishing until I’m happy with the result. Plus the word limit really focusses the mind and forces me to write economically and cut the flowery verbage. It’s a good discipline.

I’m also trying my hand at a novella at the moment. Instead of 50–60,000 words – the length of my novels – I’m aiming for something more in the 15–20,000 range. Again, the idea being that I can produce something more quickly without compromising on quality. There’s also an argument that in these fast-moving, information-saturated times, there should be a growing market for short fiction. Longer novels will always have their place, but more and more people may struggle to find the time to read them.

Well that’s the sum total of my current wisdom on the subject. What about you? How do you manage your time, and is your writing changing as a result?